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Education Bookcast

Aug 15, 2016

I write a little blurb like this for every episode, but I feel that some books hardly need any introduction. This is one such example. Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most celebrated journalists and writers of the early 21st century, and his book Outliers caused a splash in people's thinking about success.

Why? One answer is that it popularised the idea of the so-called "10,000 hour rule", initially discovered by K. Anders Ericsson, concerning how much "deliberate practice" it takes to become a world-class expert in any field. "Popularised" is the key word here, as several others were writing the same thing, but when Gladwell writes, everybody reads. And, for the most part, everybody believes. (So another answer to "why did the book cause a splash?" would be "because it's Gladwell, and he's famous, and everybody likes him.")

The strange thing is, the 10,000 hour rule makes up a minority of what he writes about in his book, but people seem to often forget the rest of the ideas. Since we've already seen the power of extended deliberate practice described in other books (Bounce, Genius Explained, and The Talent Code), it's actually these remaining ideas where we find Gladwell's unique contribution to our knowledge of the development of expertise. And it has a message with is quite at odds with the spirit of the 10,000 hour rule.

Gladwell's unique yet oft-forgotten contribution, then, is the idea of success as being a gift. He's not talking about talent, which he more or less rejects by reference to the aforementioned 10,000 hour rule, but about life circumstances. You don't choose where or when you are born, or the culture you are born into, or the state of the job market or of national demographics or of technology as you are growing up, and yet these very factors have a profound effect on whether somebody is successful. Would Bill Gates have become so rich were he born in Burma instead? Or in the 1920s? Or in fourth century Phrygia? 

Although some of Gladwell's historico-cultural musings can be somewhat open to doubt, in several places he gives evidence strong enough to convince even the careful reader that something funny is indeed going on. In this episode, I hope to help you see where he might be onto something, and where we need to be wary of the potential of his masterful storytelling to obscure his shaky arguments.

Enjoy the episode.