… or maybe “Yes, and…”

22 Sep

People sometimes understandably think my consultancy, Blink Consulting, is an homage to Malcolm Gladwell. Not so, even though I draw from his work and have all his books. For the record, I also appreciate critiques of Gladwell-ian journalism: I think this perspective (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/30/we-need-to-talk-about-ted) from Benjamin Bratton is spot on–and his delivery is a great example of the medium is the message.

All that said, I frequently cite Gladwell’s coverage of the “10,000 hour rule,” which is why a colleague forwarded the article “New Study Destroys Malcolm Gladwell’s Famous ‘10,000 Hour Rule'” (http://www.businessinsider.in/New-Study-Destroys-Malcolm-Gladwells-Famous-10000-Hour-Rule/articleshow/37721084.cms) to me. Clearly a must read!

Based on the title alone, I thought: oh no. I’ve cited completely erroneous research for my clients. Not good for them, not good for the validity of diversity as a field, not good for my legitimacy as a professional.

But I should also have known from the title that this article was going for a bit of drama. If you haven’t read it, please do, and here are some of my thoughts:

  1. It’s not Gladwell’s rule. He’s just (as always) writing about other people’s research, including: K. Ericsson, D. Levitin and R. Weisberg. In fact, as far as I can tell, it’s Levitin whom the article should call to task, as he’s the one who asserts, “The emerging picture from such studies [as those conducted more narrowly by researchers like Ericsson and Weisberg, who studied professional v. amateur musicians, and the Beatles, respectively] is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything” (Gladwell, Outliers).
  2. Making this about “destroying Gladwell’s rule” is recklessly and inaccurately positioning the dialogue as an either-or, (the “No, but…” upon which intellectualism is all too often based and perpetuates). I’m not suggesting that we thoughtlessly embrace all bunk theories that precede us (the moon is not made of cheese, and the world is not flat); I’m suggesting that thoughtless rejection or acceptance of any knowledge, established or newly pioneered is not only unhelpful: it’s a dangerous habit of mind and heart that threatens our discernment as it rusts our capacity for complex integrative thinking. The fact is that sometimes what new research brings to light is a “yes, and” rather than total destruction, as Brooke Macnamara, the principal researcher of this allegedly Gladwell destroying study, herself concludes: “There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued. For scientists, the important question now is, what else matters?”
  3. What Princeton researchers have added to the work that inspired their study “Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis” is an unsurprising and welcome perforation of Levitin’s absolutism about 10,000 hrs of practice. In their words “We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued” (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/06/30/0956797614535810.abstract). One of the important insights this study provides is that the importance of deliberate practice varies, depending on how “stable” (i.e. having fixed rules) a domain or industry is. In other words, what to practice and how much is less clear for entrepreneurs than it is for marathoners.

Where this all leaves me, is not at all torn between studies. This body of research, which is thankfully still growing and unafraid to examine its inherent assumptions and biases, gives me more ability to articulate why 10,000 hours of individual and collective cultural competency practice is a good idea for schools and other organizations that care about inclusion and equity. Cultural competency isn’t alchemy, magic or an innate state of being. Cultural competency is a fairly stable set of skills, habits of heart and mind and default practices that it can only help to practice deliberately–and that’s key: deliberate, not just presumed or unexamined practice. Because I imagine there is or will be research to back up the theory that 10,000 hours of malpractice matters when it comes to mastery, too.

**Thanks to SM for the article.

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