I really wanted to like this book. After hearing Gladwell on the radio, I was motivated to read it because of his expressed impatience (one that I share) with the fetishization of the individual heroism of successful individuals, the inordinate value our popular culture places on Horatio Alger stories and preternatural talent.
That said, there are parts of the book that I like very much. Indeed, to the extent that there is a single thesis, it is that we tend to overrate vastly the contribution of an individual to his or her own success, to our own detriment and even at our own peril. So I got the book I thought I was getting.
I found the most compelling chapters to be "The 10,000 Hour Rule" and "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," for different reasons. The idea that it takes ten thousand hours of doing something to become truly expert at it is, on the one hand, a very egalitarian reward system that makes essentially no exceptions, even in the cases of presumably gifted individuals like Mozart and Bill Gates. The amount of time required is so large, however, and must often be logged while one is still young enough to be in a position to start a career as an athlete or professional musician at the requisite age, that conditions of privilege (or at least lack of poverty and competing obligations) must be acknowledged. The role of aptitude is there (let's not even use the word talent, which is too charismatic a term), but it is only a qualifying factor, not a primary differentiating one. Gladwell's summary of the research of K. Anders Ericsson on advanced students at the Berlin Academy of Music makes the point:
"The striking thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any 'naturals,' musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any 'grinds,' people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it" (39).
The notion that it "only" takes 10,000 hours of practice, nothing else required, is contradicted later in the chapter when he returns to his theme from Chapter 1, the importance of situational advantages. So not only did Bill Joy and Bill Gates both have the advantage of access to computers at a young age to put in their 10K hours of programming at a young age (and at a time when very others had access to computers to do so), but they were born at precisely the right time to come of age at the dawn of the personal computer age in the mid-1970s. He then plays a game to which he returns frequently in the book, proposing a hypothetical profile of a successful individual based on a simple criterion like date of birth, then citing a series of examples (in this case, the birth dates of all of the founders of Microsoft and of Sun Microsystems) that give credence to his hypothesis.
There is something liberating about the idea that it is what you do, not what you were born with, that makes the most difference. Not that Gladwell offers any comfort to those of us in middle age who don't have an extra 10,000 hours to spare on a new skill. He does not address this at all, perhaps someone else has done so. Could I possibly look back over my life and think of some set of activities in which I engaged for close to that amount of time that, if I put in an additional increment of effort to tie them all together, could amount to a successful new endeavor? I cannot change when I was born, but can I find an opportunity that does fit my situation and experience? But this is not a self-help book, rather it looks at spectacular successes and failures to see what they can teach us as a society.
Spectacular failures are the subject of the longest chapter of the book, the one on plane crashes. More on that in the next installment.