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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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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