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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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