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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 January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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