Reflection on Slate.com featured article: “Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule for deliberate practice is wrong”

Original Article

Extremely thought provoking article countering a societal prevalent notion that ‘hard work’ and determination can allow people to reach any achievement regardless of innate (read genetic) ability. While I did not follow the links to any of the research papers mentioned, I found the arguments in of themselves to be convincing enough that genetics plays a far more crucial role in forming many kinds of ability, versus effort. While it is true that spending 10,000+ hours of dedicated effort on mastering a certain ability can lead to mastery (or close), the main point of the authors is that genetically predisposed people can reach the mastery in a much quicker time frame. The examples of chess masters, musician talents, math and science olympiad winners are all examples of this.

The article also posits that in our aggregate societal longing for a meritocratic world, envisioning a reality in which genetic superiority exists for wide spectrum of abilities is an uncomfortable situation. Because “it raises the specter of an anti-meritocratic society in which benefits such as good educations and high-paying jobs go to people who happen to be born with “good” genes”. This is perhaps already happening today to a certain extent – people predisposed to master quantitative skills or master certain creative endeavors accumulate professional or personal success (which I’m going to define here in terms of income/wealth/fame/or status) at a greater rate than others. But what I think is really interesting/more important is that this genetic difference exposes the universal truth we are born unequal, but we are all different with own talents and predispositions for various abilities. As a society, it is probably healthier to embrace the inequality than strive for an unreachable equality founded upon the principle that effort is all that is required to reach the pinnacle of a chosen field.

I read the article as hinting at that the ideal societal structure is one where people pursue interests and talents at which they are innately ‘good at’. And in conversation with a close friend, realized that this attitude while probably quite efficient also takes away the ‘outliers’ who follow their passions (irrespective of ability) and do amazing things – case in point Steve Jobs, as well as lesser known Stephen Smale who won the Fields Medal for mathematics after having received mostly B’s and C’s in college for nuclear physics. Even without any empirical evidence, I’d like to contend that it’s societally advantageous to have people devote time (even if it’s a lot of time) to their goals and passions rather than have a society where people are channeled into schools/professions/walks of life based on genetic, probabilistic predispositions. However, the most important agreement I have with the article is that we currently have a toxic culture where we say things like “You’re not a heart surgeon? That’s your fault for not working hard enough in school! You didn’t make it as a concert pianist? You must not have wanted it that badly”. This mentality both takes away from appreciating innate talent for what it is as well as placing unsubstantiated pressure on people for not reaching certain goals/statuses (e.g. tiger parenting).

My personal conclusion is that in the end, the goal is to find a balance between pursuing interests that one is inherently good at and that one is most passionate about. Some people can follow both at the same time which is fantastic, and of course it would be ideal if everyone found the right intersection of ability and passion, but realistically there is often a gap. Thus, as a society we should appreciate and celebrate talent, as well as appreciate and celebrate non-talent focus and dedication to an interest. This way we eliminate the toxicity of chiding and looking down upon people who lack certain talents but continue to emphasize and reward effort appropriately.

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