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On Luck, Success, and 10,000 Hours

On Luck, Success, and 10,000 Hours

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”.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.”

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    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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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