Keeping Score: Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, and the 10,000 hour rule


(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

In statistics there is a term called “outlier”. Sometimes this means that a person is far below the rest of the crowd. Other times it means that someone is way beyond the average. Public intellectual and writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book aptly titled “Outliers” that there is this 10,000 hour rule. In order to become an expert at something a person had to dedicate 10,000 hours to a specific task or activity. Gladwell worked this out to be 20 hours a week for the next five years. Something like that. The argument he made was that it takes a serious investment of time to become an outlier. So time, ever ticking, requires us to focus on what is the best ROI for our use of time. A motivation guru once called time management a misnomer. Instead, he called it life management. Stephen Covey, management guru, must have also been on to this when he wrote the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” book series.

Life came down to one person’s number. How much time we invest. The amount of money we deposit into a stock trade account. How long we live. Where we apply the hours in our day. Life has a numerical value. We are born one year, die another, and the dash in between is all we ever really had. Kaja preferred to tell Rosemary that the top poker players in the world play the cards they are dealt. It doesn’t matter if an opponent had almost a Royal Flush you still worry only about the cards you are dealt with. Being concerned about the other person has only has you lose the game. Kaja spent a summer filling her mind up with what Ronan had. Those were four months she would never get back. Had she invested that same time focusing on building the bar’s revenue in Los Angeles she would have been made equity partner before graduation. Rosemary could have come to Los Angeles much sooner instead of being left behind in Berkeley.

“Have you heard of Outliers?”

“Of course I have. We took statistics together for four years.”

“I meant the book.”

“The Gladwell book? The one written after Tipping Point?”

“Yes. He writes about the 10,000 hour rule. In order to become an expert and an outlier in any field one has to invest 10,000 in a single minded focus on a particular activity.”

“Really? And where is his peer reviewed statistical model to prove that?”

Ronan knew that there wasn’t a supplement to the book with back up research from other experts. He just found the argument sensible enough for what he wanted to explain to Kaja.

“10,000 hours could be broken down in different ways. Performing Arts schools and their graduates have an advantage on stage. Think about Julliard. The students attend full time and spent about seven hours a day singing, dancing, playing an instrument along with regular subjects like math and biology. By the time they finish four years of high school those kids have spent, by the age of 17 or 18, have already accumulated approximately 5600 hours in practice.”

“Go on.”

“Before high school some of those kids who go to a performing arts school may have started with some kind of musical after school activity. Say they start at age five going to a studio for five hours a week year round. By age 14, as a high school freshman, such a person would have practiced 2600 hours before entering a performing arts school. If you count summer theater programs that are 20 hours a week long for a two month summer break from grades 7 to 12, add an extra 1120 hours of rehearsal. Total now comes to 9320 hours. For those very ambitious kids who also did school plays, performed in a band, and maybe acted in commercials on the side since age 10 you can easily count 10,000 hours.”

“How does Outliers help here? Unless Malcolm Gladwell is going to take the test for all 400 students at this place we don’t have 10 years of practice.”

“We can condense it. Even if we don’t come up with 10,000 hours of dedicated math instruction we can still increase practice time properly. Studying smart and more often is the first phase.”

“My students have math phobia. A school psychologist brought in by the District diagnosed them last year.”

“Why do you think Asian students outperform American teenagers on international scores?”


“Not really. Kids go to school longer. The educational system favors math and science. They also approach learning in a different way. Math is not seen as hard. Just another subject to master. Mastery takes time. If a kid needs to keep trying to solve a math problem its not seen as a lack of intelligence according to Gladwell. It just means they are still figuring it out using their reasoning ability. Just like a singer may practice for hours to get a track perfect in a studio. It’s not about intelligence or level of difficulty. Just more  practice and a smart approach is required. No need for emotional frustration.”

“You want these kids to keep practicing? Half of them are ADD with intolerance for frustration.”

“God you’re negative.”

“I’m playing devil’s advocate. What are you suggesting we do with the 8 hours a day we have to educate these kids?”

“Morrison agrees that the average time Padua students spend on math learning is currently about two hours a day. Mostly in a remedial or vocational class. He and Ward have agreed to a curriculum pedagogical plan that raises it as of next Monday to a mandatory six hours a day. We have six months and 720 hours to get them to pass the test. They only need to go from the 10th percentile to the 30th. If Padua is on the border of being just above the bottom third of the state results then the board gets a reprieve. No one, including you, gets suspended. Right now you’re all on probation and I know you hate this score. You hate to fail but you did.”

Ronan’s matter-of-fact tone didn’t alleviate the slap in the face that his comment was. It was true. Kaja had a hard time with the truth when the score pegged her on the losing side, This is what happens when you depend on others to tally your rank. When its just you it’s a much easier battle.

“There is a first time for everyone Ronan. At least for the rest of us working folk.”

He resented where this was going. Ronan detested Kaja at times but respected her intelligence. This was how she retaliated towards him. Snarky remarks and condescension. She forgot he had put in his 10,000 a long time ago. He was the paid expert not her. He made the choice to go to Columbia. She stayed in California. He went to work at Deutsche Bank and J.P. Morgan Chase in New York for five years. Now he got to ask for $10,000 retainers at minimum on projects. Kaja was a public servant when she came down to it.

“Yes, you are a hard-working person Kaja no doubt. I’m just going to get you off probation so you can work without worry and invest your time off in some worthwhile activity because this job isn’t taking up all your mental and physical energy. It makes for better ROI in the long-run.”

“How do you know I need a hobby I got one that pays. I could live off the tips at the bar if I wanted to.”

“I’m sure you could. I’m also sure you really have given up on these kids and you want too prove you’re right and that they’re wrong, they’re the problem and not you. Then you can walk away without conscience believing you didn’t fail, they did.”


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