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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.”

 “No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone,” stresses Gladwell in the book.

“The problem is we assume that being willing to work hard and being ambitious is enough, but it’s not enough,” Gladwell told Bulletin Today.

Horatio Alger’s characters may have succeeded against all odds, but their successes were just as much luck as pluck. The Beatles may have taken America by storm “overnight,” but it took a lot of 8- to 12-hour live gigs in Hamburg’s red-light district for them to learn to play as a band (and get in those early 10,000 hours)—an opportunity which not every would-be fab foursome is afforded.

“If you want to work hard, you still need that place to work hard,” Gladwell says. “When you look at the lives of successful people, you see these patterns of advantages; they were given gifts that allowed them to work harder, to exploit their talents.”

Honing the competitive edge

What Gladwell is referring to is something sociologists call “accumulative advantage.” Someone with an early talent will be encouraged, given better instruction, and more chances to hone skills than someone whose talent may be just a little less readily apparent. Over time, this leads to a big difference in skills between two people who may have started out with just a little discrepancy.

Those advantages make all the difference, Gladwell explains. Practice makes perfect, and people given more opportunities for practice will come closer to perfection than those who are not given such chances. Innate talent does matter, but there are no “naturals”—people who glide effortlessly into expertise—whether in sports or music or computer programming. Those whom we think of as immensely successful—those “outliers”—were generally the beneficiaries of some early anomaly that allowed them to get more practice in than others.

And for some, no combination of innate talent, ambition, effort and privileged upbringing will be able to combat the disadvantages that fate often hands out indiscriminately.

“There were brilliant people who just never made it in the world because they hit the Depression at the wrong time and they hit the Second World War at the wrong time,” Gladwell says. “Let’s be clear: The world is not fair. It’s always going to provide more opportunities for some than others.”

“The reason we have government and institutions that create policy is to try and even that up,” he continues. “The world sets up these inherent advantages for some and these enormous disadvantages for others. You’ve got to level the playing field.”

For someone who started his career at the conservative American Spectator and counted William F. Buckley among his heroes during adolescence, Gladwell professes what may seem surprising faith in government intervention.

“I used to be a conservative, and I am no longer,” Gladwell says. “But I don’t think of this book as being political one way or the other. It’s a defense of collective action. When I think of the proper role of government, it is to provide opportunities for people to help themselves.”

The formula for success

In the end, the Outliers formula goes something like this: Ability + Opportunity + Culture + Effort + Luck = Success.

This might be something we’ve always known, but would we be talking about it if Gladwell hadn’t done the pointing?

“This book is a call to action,” he says. “I’m hoping by showing people just how uneven the starting point is, I’ll motivate people to think of ways of evening that out.”

“It’s not easy to confront our cultural legacies and shortcomings, so it can seem daunting,” he adds. “But it’s necessary—and it’s possible—to change.”

(Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Nolan Brown is an assistant editor/web content producer for AARP Bulletin Today.