I wonder if Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success is going to inadvertently create a popular misunderstanding about success similar in form to my previously stated fear about what a superficial reading of Gut Feelings and The Wisdom of Crowds would do for effective decision-making.

In a few Twitter exchanges yesterday, the notion that 10,000 hours of work invariably leads to success seems to have been the takeaway of one or two people who have read the book, although that might be an erroneous gut feeling on my part, constrained by the 140-character limit of such “conversations”. That is how misunderstanding cascades through new media ;-) . To compound that problem, I have not yet read Outliers myself. However, it was David Shenk at The Genius in All of Us (a blog and the title of his forthcoming book) who highlighted the various longitudinal studies into talent that I believe Gladwell is using too.

My understanding from Shenk, whose blog has sat quietly on my blogroll more or less since I started here, is that 10,000 hours of hard work do not necessarily lead to success, but are the minimum needed for mastery of a complex cognitive task or subject. If that mastery or genius represents success, then there is no debate. But there are plenty of back stories (I am collecting them, of course) that reveal how other factors play a part after the mastery and may yet prevent even hard-won talent from being recognized. For example, Sibelius, who I’m learning seems to have had a rough ride from 20th century musical fashion in general, flunked his audition as violinist for the Vienna Philharmonic through a disastrous bout of nerves. In Gladwell’s defence, I’m sure that he states clearly in his book that there are a lot of environmental factors (some of them entirely random) that are usually necessary to support an individual over the ten years or so required to sustain that disciplined effort.

But I will not be surprised now if successful people, who have not read the book, start explaining their success having backwardly calculated that they must have spent 10,000 hours of hard work to earn it. Let me know any examples, won’t you.

You’ll have noticed in the last post [sic] that I surreptitiously tried to sneak myself into the musical outlier group that is prize-winning horn players. Here is the outlier among those outliers, Dennis Brain, providing an introduction to the horn. Killed tragically in an accident in 1957, aged just 36, he remains to be surpassed:-

The works of Dennis Brain can be purchased from Amazon here.

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