On Luck, Success, and 10,000 Hours

Imagine this: you are the pilot of a Navy fighter jet. You’re flying in formation when you come under attack from ground-based rockets. The plane nearest you takes a hit and spins into your path, while another rocket screams toward you. And out of the corner of your eye, you see enemy planes approaching. Suddenly, an alarm goes off – something bad just went wrong in your engine…

If you’re lucky, you have a second to react. But you’re probably not lucky, not today, so you have less than that. What do you do?

Ask a fighter pilot, and they’ll probably tell you not only what they would do but what they have done in similar situations. Fighter pilots face situations like this all the time – maybe not in the details, but in the level of chaotic messiness. But ask them how they knew what to do, and they’ll probably say, quite simply, “instinct”.

Of course, it’s not instinct. If it were instinct, you or I would do the same thing, and we wouldn’t. What we’d do is die – probably more than once, and probably in horribly messy ways. And we’d do it while screaming embarrassing things and crying piteously. It wouldn’t be very heroic.

No, it’s not instinct – but it’s not anything else, either. Pilots certainly don’t consider the situation carefully and react accordingly. In fact, any conscious thought-process at all is too slow. Would-be fighter pilots that think things through are washed out – for their own good and the good of their fellows – long before they can get into the cockpit of a fighter plane.

Think Fast!

What is it, then? How do fighter pilots react so quickly and, so often, correctly when there’s simply no time to think? Well, it’s reflex, but reflex conditioned by thousands of hours of training. It’s a virtuoso performance on the level of a classical violin solo or a neurosurgeon performing microsurgery. All these situations demand instantaneous reaction to hundreds of variables, and that those reactions be not only immediate but right.

Of course, the reason these people and others can acts as quickly and as effectively as they do is their training. 10,000 hours of training, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell based this assertion on the work of Anders Ericsson, who studied classical violinists and found that, in every case, it had taken a regimen of 2-3 hours a day for 10 years to develop their abilities. Later research by Ericsson and others confirmed similar results in other fields.

This is actually not all that surprising or, contrary to the amount of public attention that figure got when Gladwell published his book, even all that interesting. We all already know that to get really good at something takes a lot of practice – what’s important about Ericsson’s research isn’t the amount of hours it takes to get good at something but that, in demanding fields like classical musicianship, medicine, computer programming, and jet piloting, there is no shortcut – Ericsson’s result turned up not a single case of a “natural talent” who achieved the level of musicianship or other expertise demonstrated by typical members of the fields he studied with only half the time spent practicing.

This point takes on more relevance when combined with the point made by another of Gladwell’s books, Blink. In Blink, Gladwell sings the virtues of the glimpse, the gist, the snap judgment, the hunch, as against the thoughtfully considered and reasoned conclusion. It’s too easy, he says, to put too much faith in the process by which conclusions are arrived at. For example, he describes a Greek statue whose authenticity was attested to by reams of legal and scientific documentation – but which expert after expert responded to with a discomfort they couldn’t easily identify until eventually it was, indeed, revealed as a forgery.

The researchers who recognized the statue as a fake could rarely put their objections into words. The statue just didn’t feel right. But that doesn’t mean you or I would have noticed anything at all out of the ordinary. We have the same ability to make quick decisions – what we don’t have is the 10,000 hours, the expertise to make good quick decisions, at least not in those domains.

Lucking Out

Gladwell’s point has been, unfortunately, badly misunderstood by many who see Gladwell’s central thesis as saying something like “all you need to do to be an expert in anything is devote 10,000 hours to it.” Too often, I’ve read or heard commenters who have taken this idea as a stand-alone fact, without the context needed to make sense of it.

The significance of Gladwell’s argument is that, first of all, in order to be a real expert – that is, in order to internalize act effectively in one’s field, even under extreme conditions – one needs to have internalized the rules and discipline that inform such action. And that takes practice – lots of it. Neurosurgeons put in 8 years of interning after their standard medical training; fighter pilots put in thousands of flight hours, plus thousands more hours of ground training. Only when the mind has been “stocked” with that kind of experience can we make the kinds of split-second decisions he describes in Blink.

Secondly – and missing entirely from most discussions of the 10,000 hour concept – in many cases, one needs not only practice but luck. To be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, one needs not only to have had years of programming experience, but to have had it at a time when there were openings for major advances in the computer field. Had Jobs or Steve Wozniak been born a decade later, the personal computer would almost definitely have been invented and popularized by someone else, and both would most likely be programmers at HP, albeit very good ones.

This applies even for less earth-moving fields than computer science. For example, Gladwell discusses young Canadian hockey players, almost all of whom have the opportunity to put in their 10,000 hours before their 18th birthdays. Because of the way youth hockey teams are structured, though, the likelihood of actually doing so is tied to a matter of sheer luck: what month were you born in? Each year’s team is restricted to kids born in the same year, which means that the kids born at the beginning of the year have almost a year’s growth on the kids born in December – which in turn means that they are bigger and, as puberty sets in, more coordinated than their younger teammates. It’s a small edge, but over the course of the dozen years that kids play hockey, it adds up, until by the time you get to the late teen years, almost all the remaining players were born in the first six months of the year, and none at all in the last three.

That’s pure luck; if the cut-off were a month earlier, December-kids would dominate the league. And that’s Gladwell’s argument – that much of what separates experts from non-experts is not willingness to do the work but opportunity. The Roman philosopher Seneca summed this point up well, saying, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

It takes both to create success. Preparation – the 10,000 hours it takes to develop expertise (and the passion and willpower it takes to endure those 10,000 hours) – and opportunity – having been born at the right time or in the right place, having the wealth you need to act on a great idea, knowing the right people (which is essentially Gladwell’s point in another book, The Tipping Point), and so on.

It’s a sobering thought, but also kind of encouraging. After all, the preparation is at least somewhat within our control – if you have the passion, you can develop the expertise you need for just about everything (and contrary to the 10,000 hour rule, not all fields demand that level of virtuosity). And if we don’t always have control over the opportunity, we can at least make sure to keep an eye out for it and, in developing our various expertises, learn to identify it when it appears. And that brings luck out of the stars and, at least partially, into our grasp.

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