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Too Old to Succeed? No, but It Takes Practice

Author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something.

Ten thousand hours: That’s how long it takes to become good at something.

Want to succeed at golf? Put in 10,000 hours of practice. Playing an instrument? Same thing. Business, writing, hockey, knitting, flying a plane? You guessed it.

Ten thousand hours is “the magic number for true expertise,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. The New Yorker staff writer and author of Blink (2005) and The Tipping Point (2000) didn’t just pull this number out of the air. The 10,000-hour theory was first advocated by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues, who studied violinists at the elite Berlin Academy of Music in the early 1990s, and has been corroborated by researchers studying everything from chess players to master criminals to Mozart.

Ten thousand hours. That’s three hours of work per day (or 20 hours per week) for 10 years. For older adults looking to start a new career or to pick up a new skill, this might seem discouraging—but it shouldn’t, according to Gladwell.

“One of the reasons people don’t feel they can reinvent themselves is that they think being good at something requires some innate gift,” Gladwell told AARP Bulletin Today in an interview. “They think, ‘I couldn’t do that, I don’t have that kind of mind or that kind of ability.’ But the 10,000-hour rule says you can do that; you just have to put in the necessary time. The thing that limits us in our choices is not something we have no control over, our abilities. It is something we do have control over—our effort. It really points to the value of experience.”

You can see the results on the public stage. “Many of the kinds of disastrous decisions made on Wall Street that led to this current mess were made by people who did not have 10,000 hours in finance, in trading,” Gladwell says. What about the hits President-elect Obama has taken for choosing Cabinet members who served in previous administrations? “That’s nonsense,” Gladwell says. “He’s correctly gone after people who’ve got their 10,000 hours in in government service. Both youth and experience have their advantages and disadvantages, and I think we overvalue the advantages of youth and undervalue the virtues of experience.”

It isn’t that simple

Before landing at the New Yorker and becoming a best-selling book author, Gladwell, 45, got in his 10,000-plus hours of experience working as a science and business reporter at the Washington Post. He has since become well known for repackaging academic research and socio-philosophical theories into eminently readable, narrative-rich general-interest books; for making the kind of connections that seem so obvious once pointed out but that require someone like Gladwell to do the pointing.

Outliers is centered on one deceptively simple question: Why do some people (or groups of people) succeed whereas others do not?

His conclusion, in its most distilled form: It’s the culture, stupid.

Successful people “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,” writes Gladwell in Outliers.

Thus, while intelligence counts, not all people with high IQs—even genius-level IQs—will be successful. Outliers highlights the research of Lewis Terman, whose study of 1,470 “gifted” children over the course of their lifetimes found that the environment in which they were raised was just as, if not more, important in predicting the path their lives would take than their basic intellect was.

Intelligence only mattered up to a certain point. When it came down to determining which geniuses would succeed and which wouldn’t, “in the end, only one thing mattered: family background”—the economic and cultural circumstances in which one was raised. What the unsuccessful geniuses lacked was “a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.”

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