Gladwell and the Influence of Personal Passion

In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell discusses the significance of the 10k Hour Rule which introduced the notion that among the keys to becoming extraordinarily successful in a field is the requirement of approximately 10k hours of practice. Gladwell’s theory is based in part on research by Anders Ericsson who in the early 1990s studied violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. In his book Gladwell asserts the following:

“The curious thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals” – musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have 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. What’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

In his book Gladwell reviews a select number of individual who achieved extraordinary success by putting in their 10k hours. But there is another commonality that emerges among his examples…they are all personally driven to put in their 10k hours. The Beatles Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Bill Joy were all to varying degrees obsessed as though they had an internal need. My question is, would success have come to Bill Joy if he lacked the personal drive yet put in his 10k hours because his father insisted he learn and master computer programming? While 10k hours may be the magic number, is personal drive and passion also a necessary part of the Outliers formula?

As a young mother my 4 year old son insisted that he could be an actor so when an open audition came up in Minneapolis with a well known agency I took him believing that it would be a good learning experience…success doesn’t come overnight and acting takes hard work.

Parents weren’t allowed to watch the auditions, my son was lead into a room where he met agents and was rated on a scale for one to ten. The agency called later to say that Nick scored a perfect 10, that they not only wanted to sign him but that they also wanted to send him on an audition for Target the following day. I naturally verified that they didn’t have my son confused with someone else because he wasn’t notorious for being cooperative in preschool.

Nick and I went to the audition and I received a call that evening, Target wanted to sign Nick for their Christmas advertisement. Since they used the word advertisement I assumed he was doing print work, when I discussed signing Target contracts I discovered that Target had hired him for a television commercial. To recap, within 2 weeks of Nick’s audition he was on a set filming his first television commercial, by 5 he was a member of AFTRA and had his own medical and dental policy through the actors union. Nicholas went on to do oodles of print work, and a long list of television commercials including a McDonald’s Christmas commercial which aired for several years world wide and an ABC mini series. I eventually withdrew the boys from acting because of health complications.

The point of my story is that The Beatles, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bill Joy and even my 4 year old son all shared a passion, a drive…and what appears to me to be an inner knowing of where in the universe they naturally fit best.

While Gladwell discusses the Matthew effect in Outliers, I’d like to introduces my own biblically inspired theory which I will call: many are called but few are chosen. Maybe Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Bill Joy were obsessed because their obsession was exactly where they belonged and they had an innate understanding of that fact just like my son did…maybe passion and obsession are intertwined with the personal destiny of certain individuals. Maybe Gates, Jobs, and Joy were the “chosen” referred to in the biblical text and maybe still others are merely “called,” meaning they lack a specific passion or drive and therefore are not destine to achieve an Outliers spectacular level of success.

While I have no disagreement with the 10k Hour Rule I do wonder if personal drive isn’t a necessary part of the equation. Are we assuming that an uninterested violinist may achieve an Outliers success with the right factors by merely completing of their 10k hours? Or do uninterested violinists quit playing because the volume of time needed is drudgery when you lack the drive, love and passion for the pursuit …THEREFORE those individuals did not end up represented in Anders Ericsson’s research because they stopped playing.

Gladwell again raises fascinating questions regarding our assumptions about the road to success. He suggests that a part of the formula may very well be a quantifiable amount of practice. I would seriously caution parents against making a child practice more rigorously in hopes of inducing an Outlier but I would encourage parents to pay careful attention to those things their children are passionately interested in and remember the 10k Hour Rule when worrying whether or not Johnny is spending too much time doing…X. In the cases of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, The Beatles and Bill Joy that obsessive dedication factored into their ultimate success.

* On a side note, I think many people have passion and drive but we’re often taught that this factor is unimportant. We see growing up and maturing as putting away childish dreams and notions…like being a television actor.  Had I not taken Nick on that audition, he may have never had the opportunity to prove me wrong. My motive was to help him gain insight into the world, that could have been a spirit squelching dose realism. Nick taught me to believe in the wisdom of the spirit. Author Paulo Coelho once wrote “When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true.”  Sometimes it does.

***On a quirky side note, I looked up Malcolm Gladwell’s biography and discover that he and I share the same birthday also, when I selected a fictional town name for a novel I’m working on I picked Elmira, thinking that I sort of made it up. Elmira is where Malcolm Gladwell grew up, just thought it was an interesting coincidence.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Gladwell and the Influence of Personal Passion

  1. I think passion plays an important role, too, not just putting in the time. You’ll willingly put in the time, and not even notice that it’s passing, if you love what you are doing. That love will also put you into a state of flow, where creativity seems to work best.

    Love those woo woo coincidences you share with Gladwell.

  2. It seems all Outliers started with an indomitable drive, and that drive opened the possibility to all that would eventually come to pass. It seemed an absent discussion in the book…I think an innate passion and drive is necessary to the remainder of the equation. I don’t believe everyone has that..

    Confession…we share the same birthday but I’m 2 years older.

  3. Two thoughts:

    1) There probably is a bi-directional interaction between passion and the 10kh effort. I.e., passion makes you practice more, but practice makes you more passionate as well (if only to counteract the cognitive dissonance of “I put a lot of effort in this” vs. “I don’t like what I ‘m doing”).

    2) I wonder if there is a meta-skill that can be trained the same way; can someone become expertly flexible by putting 10kh into practicing many different skills, and the switch between them? If I look at children growing up in a world full of apps and gadgets, it’s not the skill of using one that’s important, but the skill of using many.

  4. Hey Timm,
    All the Outliers discussed by MG had a natural passion..couldn’t pull themselves away. My question: is that a material factor?

    I do think there’s a an unanswered question regarding practice…does passion induced by practice create the same inertia as innate, inborn passion. I honestly suspect the answer is no…the drive is different, absorption possibly different. Was part of the equation the fact that the Outliers had both a natural passion and 10k hours.

    You’re second point is also very interesting…we need more studies.

  5. I think passion is a material factor, but not an additive one, but an interactive one. Passion modulates the effects of practice. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interaction

    And I’m not sure if there is something like innate, inborn passion. Any kind of passion requires some kind of exposure to practice (which might be passive, such as looking at a painting, as opposed to painting itself).

  6. Possibly inborn or innate fell short, I’m referring to the very strong marked preferences that are apparent among some children or young people…the Outliers were all driven in the specific area they became hugely successful, such as the Beatles. Exposure and practice rarely translates into the above and beyond commitment the outliers demonstrated. Yet the book doesn’t list drive or passion as part of the equation, only 10k hours of practice. I’m suggesting that some level of personal passion was part of the equations for all the Outliers described in the book, they were obsessed therefore putting in 10k hours of practice will likely not produce the same results without the momentum created by the individual drive demonstrated by the Outliers.

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