Working in your 10000 hours

Last year, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success,  author Malcolm Gladwell rubbed the fortunes of the few in the faces of the less fortunate.  His sin, in a nutshell, was to shed light on the dark secret we sometimes suspect but are afraid to discuss openly: that chance may well play a significant role in the monumental achievements of larger-than-life icons.

I won’t go into all of the details; you can follow the links or search for yourself if you’re interested in learning more than I’ll cover.  I want to focus on one of his core points and juxtapose it against today’s reality.

Gladwell doesn’t suggest that luck alone makes anyone successful, he only claims that serendipity weeds out many of us due to the rarity of special convergence.  That is, the “right-place-right-time” effect that must also coincide with “right person”.  Breakthroughs highly benefit from a confluence of factors and events rather than relying mainly on the sweat of certain individuals (go here for Seth “Zoomer” Godin’s take on the book).

But as Thomas Edison opined, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.  Author Gladwell illustrates this by combining the blessing of circumstance with the investment of around 10,000 hours labor toward your chosen craft in order to achieve excellence at it.  I could see that many hours of applied grind helping make one a success.  If we assume a 50-hour work week and 50 weeks worked per year, that comes down to 4 years intensive effort… be it sheer work, education, or (more likely) a combination.

What throws that concept into turmoil, at least in the United States,  is the ever-shortening cycle of employment tenure.  A 2006 paper (focused on Europe) indicated that 13.6 years tenure was the sweet spot for average employee productivity; any more or less and efficiency tailed off.  13.6 years easily accomodates that 10,000 hours for skills honing.  But at that time, average US employment was 6.6 years and trending downward.  I’m sure it’s lower now– which means that just as someone becomes an expert in a field they may be having to prepare for a new one!

Change can be good, stimulating, even necessary… but how short can cycles get before they do more harm than good?  I’m suspecting we’re close to the tipping point in the US.  We’ve moved far away from where we used to be, valuing the experience of those who had already learned from mistakes, and into a place where newness is everything.  It’s anecdotal of course, but I once heard a director refuse to rehire a highly qualified ex-employee for the sole reason that he had been “employed too long” previously.  That same company was later successfully sued on the basis of age discrimination.  That wasn’t coincidence.

In these times where the rate of change requires us to be nimble to the point of craziness, I think it’s time to back up a bit.  6.6 years may be fine for some roles, but even the most entrepreneurial of outfits need some sage experience in the mix.  If 10,000 hours really are a good requirement for establishment of expertise, let’s start by combining that factor with the European employment study data and embracing 30,000 as a benchmark for average employment tenure (I think the conclusions are valid for the US as well).

Counterpoints welcome!


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