Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
We're massively impressed by a concert pianist, or a wide receiver, or a truly skillful visual artist. Their abilities seem otherworldly.
But what makes these people so skillful? How did they start out like you and I and then become something so extraordinary?
Part of us wants to believe that it’s something innate and magical, so we can recuse ourself from hard work. The other part of us wants to believe that it’s something earned through blood, sweat, and tears — that we too could achieve amazing performance, if only we could devote ourselves to something.
In reality, it's a bit of both.
In the book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, Matthew Syed takes a critical look at all the factors underpinning the success of some of the most extraordinary athletes and artists in the world.
The obvious place to start is with the popular Outliers idea posited by Malcolm Gladwell, the idea that many successful people are a product of their environment rather than ‘gifted’.
Gladwell shows how the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and other outstanding performers is not so much to do with ‘what they are like’ but rather ‘where they come from.’ ‘The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,’ Gladwell writes. ‘But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.’”
We think if you study the life and work trajectory of experts, two patterns seem to emerge.
One, they have specific backgrounds or opportunities, as mentioned above. Two, they put an incredible amount of time and effort into deliberate, effortful practice.
But not everyone will have access to the same facilities or teachers (this goes back to opportunity and circumstance), and some rules/regulations will inevitably favor some and add roadblocks for others in the quest for their 10,000 hours.
A good example of the latter is eligibility cutoff dates for children’s sports teams. If you’ve ever signed up yourself or your kids in a sports league then you’ll know there is always a cut-off birth date for the different age groups.
Say your child plays on a soccer team for kids born any time in the year 2007. If your child is born in January, then they will have almost a 12 month head start on a child born in December, and a year is like a lifetime at that stage of physical development. Those physical skills manifest themselves in playing time, which further develops the child.
Month of birth is, of course, just one of the many hidden forces shaping patterns of success and failure in this world. But what most of these forces have in common – at least when it comes to attaining excellence – is the extent to which they confer (or deny) opportunities for serious practice. Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.
Thus, if you have the time and opportunity to devote to practice, you’ve crossed the first hurdle. The second is understanding the characteristics of the type of practice which will push you ahead.
The best type of practice does two things:
Let's explain the first point in greater detail, using an example of a specific process happening in the brains of experts.
We all do something called chunking. You probably don’t realize you’re doing it, but you do it all the time. Say I asked you to read the line below once and then, without looking back at the page, repeat the letters back to me.
The average person will find this difficult to do. Generally speaking, our mind can only keep track of about seven things at once, and I asked you to try and recall eleven. Now watch what happens when I rearrange the letters.
THE BLACK DOG
These are the exact same letters, but sensibly grouped in a way that your mind can understand: This is chunking.
Now, instead of trying to remember eleven letters you are remembering three words (which is still eleven letters). Even if you were able to recall the letters the way they were presented in the first example, think of how much quicker you could recall them in the second one.
This is one way that experts become so good. They learn how to chunk processes specific to their area of expertise. This helps them to use a sort of autopilot, allowing them to elevate their minds to a higher level. That's why you'll hear a great pianist talking about trying to use the instrument to “paint an emotion in the listeners' minds” while you or I would struggle to eke out a few notes.
As Janet Starkes, professor emerita of kinesiology at McMaster Univeristy, noted in Bounce,
The exploitation of advance information results in the time paradox where skilled performers seem to have all the time in the world. Recognition of familiar scenarios and the chunking of perceptual information into meaningful wholes and patterns speeds up processes.
This chunking and pattern recognition not only enables the expert to perform faster, it also helps them to make better decisions.
Unfortunately, figuring out how to best recognize, process, and use this information isn’t something that can be learned from a book or a classroom, it comes from experience. This may seem like common sense but it won’t happen just by putting in the time: You have to focus to find these patterns.
This is why (as dozens of studies have shown) length of time in many occupations is only weakly related to performance. Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.
Put another way, someone with 20 years of experience, might be repeating one year of experience 20 times.
Let’s look at a great example from the book to illustrate this point.
Take a look at the anagrams in List A and try to solve them. Then do the same for list B.
Both lists are the same words. The only difference is that one list was more difficult to solve. When researchers asked participants to list off words like those in List A, that were easy, the participants had problems recalling them. Their recall soared when asked to list words from more difficult anagrams like those is List B.
To figure out words like those in list B it takes more time, concentration, and effort: You are engaging much more of your brain. This means that if you want to remember something or maintain your focus, make it hard.
This example, taken from the work of psychologist S. W. Tyler, neatly emphasized the power of practice when it is challenging rather than nice and easy. “When most people practice they focus on the things they can do effortlessly,' Ericsson has said. ‘Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.
This isn't to say that a certain amount of time and effort don’t go into maintaining a certain skill. But if you want to grow, you need to strain. In other words, you must eat a lot of broccoli; and since most people won't stomach it, they will never develop a high fluency in their discipline.
…world-class performance comes by striving for a target just out of reach, but with a vivid awareness of how the gap might be breached. Over time, through constant repetition and deep concentration, the gap will disappear, only for a new target to be created, just out of reach once again.
It is worth mentioning that this type of deliberate practice can only happen if the individual has made a conscious decision to devote themselves: We can’t make these decisions for other people. We have to go “all in”; no substitute will do.
It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.
In theory we can all be that wide receiver picking the ball from the air, or that musician who speaks to us through their instrument. 10,000 hours of hard, correct work is all it takes.
But as they say, “In theory, reality and theory are the same. In reality, they're not.”
If you want to make it there, the road is bumpy. It has to be. Only a difficult road will cause you to grow and learn. And you have to personally want to travel this road, because it will be long and if you can’t motivate yourself you’ll never get where you need to be.
And as much as we shy away from reality, we can't also forget the roles of luck and genes in making it to the absolute “top” of a profession. The recent scholarship has been extremely egalitarian, emphasizing the necessary hard work that goes into creating high level performance.
But that doesn't mean that different folks don't have different biology — Is there a world in which Woody Allen could have played in the NFL? — and it doesn't mean that for every Daniel-Day Lewis, there aren't a few hundred other actors who are extremely talented but for whom life got in the way.
Top 0.01% success is a multiplicative system: Everything's gotta go right. The world is too competitive to allow for anything else. The magical mix of luck, genes, and correct practice probably differ widely depending on the field.
So in your quest for success, realize that you'll have to do deep, hard work for many years, you may need the right parents (to an extent) and you'll need a whole lot of luck.
On a lighter note, even if you just work on the first one, the only one within your control, we suspect you won't be disappointed with the result.
Recently, Charlie Munger commented that when he reads the New York Times, he pays special attention to Paul Krugman—with whom he very often disagrees—in order to expose himself to opposing political and economic viewpoints. His methodology is akin to that of Charles Darwin, who described, in his autobiography, his tendency to immediately note observations that seemed contrary to his prior beliefs.
Munger is not the only one. Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent AMA, wrote:
A lot of people wondered why I went on Glenn Beck's show. I don't agree with a lot of what he says. But I was curious to meet him. And my basic position in the world is that the most interesting thing you can do is to talk to someone who you think is different from you and try and find common ground. And what happened? We did. We actually had a great conversation. Unlike most of the people who interviewed me for David and Goliath, he had read the whole book and thought about it a lot. My lesson from the experience: If you never leave the small comfortable ideological circle that you belong to, you'll never develop as a human being.
You can't really have an informed opinion if you can't state the other side of the argument better than the smartest person who holds the opposite view.
On May 29, former New York Mayor and Chairman of Bloomberg LP, Michael Bloomberg, gave the commencement address at Harvard. The gist of his speech was that liberal ideology has so pervaded high level American education that conservative voices are being silenced by popular fervor. His speech made some excellent points about the nature of free thought.
Modern Day McCarthyism
There is an idea floating around college campuses—including here at Harvard—that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There's a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.
In the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data, 96% of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama.
Ninety-six percent. There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors.
That statistic should give us pause—and I say that as someone who endorsed President Obama for re-election—because let me tell you, neither party has a monopoly on truth or God on its side.
Role of Universities
The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues—without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.
Requiring scholars—and commencement speakers, for that matter—to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.
… As a former chairman of Johns Hopkins, I strongly believe that a university's obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.
Always remember, you must consider your own ideologies as intensely as you consider those held by others.
Herbert Simon and William Chase, in a paper from forty years ago, drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:
There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions …
That's the famous ten-thousand-hour rule.
Malcolm Gladwell takes this up in the New Yorker:
This is the scholarly tradition I was referring to in my book “Outliers,” when I wrote about the “ten-thousand-hour rule.” No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”
The key point of The Sports Gene, a new book by David Epstein, is that the ten-thousand-hour idea must be understood as an average.
[B]oth he and I discuss the same study by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that looked at students studying violin at the elite Music Academy of West Berlin. I was interested in the general finding, which was that the best violinists, on average and over time, practiced much more than the good ones. In other words, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was how long and how intently they worked (see deliberate practice). Epstein points out, however, that there is a fair amount of variation behind that number—suggesting that some violinists may use their practice time so efficiently that they reach a high degree of excellence more quickly. It’s an important point. There are seventy-three great composers who took at least ten years to flourish. But there is much to be learned as well from Shostakovich, Paganini, and Satie.
The point of Simon and Chase’s paper years ago was that cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed. There’s a reason the Beatles didn’t give us “The White Album” when they were teen-agers. And if the surgeon who wants to fuse your spinal cord did some newfangled online accelerated residency, you should probably tell him no. 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. What Simon and Chase wrote forty years ago remains true today. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.
So maybe being ‘a natural' means you're on the lower end of the average.
(Update: I'm not sure how to think about this stuff. What I do believe is something along the lines of: (1) We're born with different innate talent or physical attributes that sometimes no amount of “hard work” can overcome; (2) having a growth mindset and a little bit of grit makes a big difference (call this tenacity for short, it helps but it's not everything); and (3) deliberate practice makes a difference but it won't, for instance, make you taller. In short, you can tilt the odds in your favor and how many hours that takes may be a function of what you're born with. )
What we're reading says a lot about who we are – or who we want to be. In a new feature in the Globe and Mail, Jane Mount asks 100 writers, artists, and foodies to describe the books that inspire them.
I wanted to highlight Malcolm Galdwell's and Jennifer Egan's.
First up is Gladwell:
I’m in the middle of writing my new book, which is about power. I’m very interested in the strategies we use to keep people who are powerless in check. And the ways in which the powerless fight back. So I started reading about crime. I’ve probably acquired 150 books for this project. I haven’t read all of them, and I won’t. Some of them I’ll just look at. But that’s the fun part. It’s an excuse to go on Amazon. The problem is, of course, that eventually you have to stop yourself. Otherwise you’ll collect books forever. But these books are markers for the ideas that I’m interested in. That’s why it’s so important to have physical books. When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding, too.
Texas Tough, a sweeping history of American imprisonment from the days of slavery to the present, explains how a plantation-based penal system once dismissed as barbaric became a template for the nation.
Anyone interested in reading about old school gangsters — as opposed to this generation's wannabe “gangstas” — and prison life in general, will find this the best book you've probably never heard of.
By analyzing the criminals' candid perspectives on their actions and their social environment, the authors provide a fuller understanding of armed robbery. They conclude with an insightful discussion of the implications of their findings for crime prevention policy.
The Illusion of Free Markets argues that our faith in “free markets” has severely distorted American politics and punishment practices.
With Popular Crime, James takes readers on an epic journey from Lizzie Borden to the Lindbergh baby, from the Black Dahlia to O. J. Simpson, explaining how crimes have been committed, investigated, prosecuted and written about, and how that has profoundly influenced our culture over the last few centuries—even if we haven’t always taken notice.
A definitive history of organized crime in America.
The story tracks the deeds and misdeeds of Cole Younger and his brothers James, John, and Bob, and tells the story of a troubled state during the late 1800s. From their Civil War battles against the Union with William Quantrill and his band of guerrillas, to the raid in Lawrence, Kansas, to their first bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri, the Youngers were both heroes and foes of their state.
[D]escribes the new realities of punishment in America and explores the nexus of returning prisoners with seven policy domains: public safety, families and children, work, housing, public health, civic identity, and community capacity. Travis proposes a new architecture for our criminal justice system, organized around five principles of reentry, that will encourage change and spur innovation. It is a Herculean synthesis and an invaluable resource for anyone interested in prisoner reentry and social justice.
Organized crime—the Italian American kind—has long been a source of popular entertainment and legend. Now Thomas Reppetto provides a balanced history of the Mafia's rise—from the 1880s to the post-WWII era—that is as exciting and readable as it is authoritative.
* * *
I found Jennifer Egan's bookshelf a little more interesting.
Emma has always been my favourite Jane Austen novel. A lot of people tend to like Emma – she’s such a winningly flawed person. One thing that surprises me about Austen is that her characters are very inflexible; nobody changes that much. Emma might be the slight exception, but she still stays Emma in the end, even if she’s a little bit wiser. You could almost say that Austen deals in types, which normally is a very dangerous practice and doesn’t lead to anything interesting. Yet her work is stupendous. Her novels work themselves out with a tremendous clarity that feels mathematical or geometric. It’s very spare; there’s nothing extra. Her books shouldn’t work, but they do, and better than almost anyone else’s.
Don Quixote has become so entranced reading tales of chivalry that he decides to turn knight errant himself. In the company of his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, these exploits blossom in all sorts of wonderful ways. While Quixote's fancy often leads him astray—he tilts at windmills, imagining them to be giants—Sancho acquires cunning and a certain sagacity. Sane madman and wise fool, they roam the world together-and together they have haunted readers' imaginations for nearly four hundred years
First published in 1962, this wonderfully provocative book introduced the notion of “pseudo-events” — events such as press conferences and presidential debates, which are manufactured solely in order to be reported — and the contemporary definition of celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.”
Byron’s exuberant masterpiece tells of the adventures of Don Juan, beginning with his illicit love affair at the age of sixteen in his native Spain and his subsequent exile to Italy. Following a dramatic shipwreck, his exploits take him to Greece, where he is sold as a slave, and to Russia, where he becomes a favorite of the Empress Catherine who sends him on to England.
Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier years. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine relives part of her own experience. And in a blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna resolves to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.
No one who reads Good Morning, Midnight will ever forget it.
Sparkling comedy of provincial manners concerns a well-intentioned young heiress and her matchmaking schemes that result in comic confusion for the inhabitants of a 19th-century English village. Droll characterizations of the well-intentioned heroine, her hypochondriacal father, plus many other finely drawn personalities make this sparkling satire of provincial life one of Jane Austen's finest novels.
[A] complex look at English provincial life at a crucial historical moment, and, at the same time, dramatizes and explores some of the most potent myths of Victorian literature.
A forerunner of psychological fiction, and considered a landmark work for its innovative use of narrative devices, Sterne's topsy-turvy novel was both celebrated and vilified when first published. Originally released in nine separate volumes, it is in effect an exercise about the difficulties of writing. Impossible to categorize, it remains a beguiling milestone in the history of literature.
Germinal is generally considered the greatest of Emile Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. Of these, Germinal is the most concerned with the daily life of the working poor. Set in the mid 1860's, the novel's protaganist Etienne Lantier is hungry and homeless, wandering the French countryside, looking for work. He stumbles upon village 240, the home of a coal mine, La Voreteux. He quickly gets a job in the depths of the mine, experiencing the backbreaking work of toiling hundreds of feet below the earth. He is befriended by a local family and they all lament the constant work required to earn just enough to slowly starve. Fired up by Marxist ideology, he convinces the miners to strike for a pay raise. The remainder of the novel tells the story of the strike and its effect on the workers, managers, owners and shareholders.
The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be.
Underworld is a story of men and women together and apart, seen in deep, clear detail and in stadium-sized panoramas, shadowed throughout by the overarching conflict of the Cold War. It is a novel that accepts every challenge of these extraordinary times.
It tells the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in post-war England. What happens to these young women–seduction and abandonment, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal–becomes as moving and wonderful and yet as predestined as the transits of the planets themselves.
Wharton's first literary success, set amid fashionable New York society, reveals the hypocrisy and destructive effects of the city's social circle on the character of Lily Bart. Impoverished but well-born, Lily must secure her future by acquiring a wealthy husband; but her downfall — initiated by a romantic indiscretion — results in gambling debts and social disasters.
|Still curious? Check out My Ideal Bookshelf.|
If incompetence is the disease of the novice, overconfidence is the disease of the expert.
This brief clip, which is part of a much longer CSPAN interview with Malcolm Gladwell, discusses overconfidence. Everyone should watch this.
Incompetence irritates me, but overconfidence scares me. Incompetent people rarely have the opportunities to make mistakes that greatly affect things. But overconfident leaders and experts have the dangerous ability to create disaster.
|Still curious? Watch the full 57 minute interview. Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and What the Dog Saw.|
We associate the willingness to risk great failure — and the ability to climb back from catastrophe–with courage. But in this we are wrong… There is more courage and heroism in defying the human impulse, in taking the purposeful and painful steps to prepare for the unimaginable.