Malcolm Gladwell Defends Disputed '10,000 Hours' Rule

Academic fight! Malcolm Gladwell's popular "10,000-hours rule" was debunked in a Sports Illustrated writer's new book, so Gladwell defended his theory by accusing the author of creating a "straw man."

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Academic fight! Malcolm Gladwell's popular "10,000-hours rule" was debunked in a Sports Illustrated writer's new book, so Gladwell defended his piece by accusing the author of creating a "straw man."

In Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 bestseller Outliers, the amply-haired "thought leader" popularized the "10,000-hours rule," which posits that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any competition, from violin to basketball to Halo. It was a powerful idea, based on several studies, and put some evidence behind the "practice makes perfect" argument for any skill.

But the rule has faced a number of critics and doubters, none more so than in Sports Illustrated's David Epstein's new book The Sports Gene, which thoroughly disproves the theory. Practice is important, of course, but there's a reason that Jamaicans dominate sprinting, Kenyans excel at long distance track, and tall people are much more likely to make it to the NBA, according to the book. Epstein also notes that the world's best in high jump, darts, and track don't need nearly 10,000 hours of practice. It's in the genes, he argues.

In particular, one of Epstein's chapters details two successful high jumpers, one of whom had practiced for far more than the prescribed 10,000 hours, and another who had done far less. The chapter is titled "A Tale of Two High Jumpers (Or: 10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours)." It was a direct challenge to Gladwell's theory — Epstein even admits Gladwell's popularity pushed him to write the book in the first place. "[T]here’s no where that says it’s a magical number where that’s when they become elite or anything like that," Epstein says in an Outside magazine interview.

Gladwell backlash is nothing new, but it seems to have a particularly public dimension this time around. People are jumping ship from the 10,000-hour rule, including prominent economist Peter Orszag over at Bloomberg News and former professional cyclist Richard Moore for The Guardian. BusinessInsider went so far as to write that Epstein's book "destroys" Gladwell's favored theory.

And so yesterday, Gladwell defended his theory against Epstein's assertions in a piece in The New Yorker, arguing that Epstein did not actually debunk the 10,000-hour rule as he explained it. "Epstein has written a wonderful book. But I wonder if, in his zeal to stake out a provocative claim on this one matter, he has built himself a straw man." You see, Gladwell only applied the 10,000-hour rule to cognitively demanding activities that needed significant thought, unlike those runners and dart-throwers.

It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly. ... In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.

Here, Gladwell explains that he and Epstein were actually talking past each other, and that their works don't necessarily disagree. It's not exactly a riveting argument, but Epstein seems pleased with it.

Epstein's non-attacking tweet is certainly the more mature response, but it leaves much to be desired. We can't help but side with ESPN magazine's Pablo Torre here: "I would pay to see @SIDavidEpstein + @Gladwell debate this."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.