Self-Made Men

What we get wrong with the 10,000 hour rule.

When I started college, I placed high admiration on people who branded themselves as “self-made” men. Their stories of how self-determination allowed them to earn their first million or to build their own company were continuous source of inspiration for me.

Back in 2012, I came across a concept called “10,000 hour rule” from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It is dubbed as the magic number to greatness. Gladwell posits that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve superior performance in any field.

When I shared this to one of my friends, he expressed his reservations about the concept. He argued that innate talent influences the period required to hone greatness and that it varies per individual. I tried to explain to him that while talent has a role to play in forming elite performers, one still has to undergo a rigorous and lengthy period, roughly 10,000 hours, worth of training to realize the full potential of his talent. He said he will rethink his stance, a euphemism for “I still don’t believe in it”.

I personally think that people would be better off believing that they have the power to shape their future through hard work versus fatally surrendering to their own circumstances and limitations. However, the discussion I had with my friend bred a deep curiosity that led me to re-examine the concept of the 10,000 hour rule.

I was surprised by how many have formed skewed interpretations of the 10,000 hour rule, far from the original intentions of the author. In a podcast interview on Freakonomics, Gladwell points out a very specific argumentative function of the concept. What he wanted to show with the 10,000 hour rule was the fundamental need for support from other people in order to incubate talent. His goal was not to show the specific time required for success but rather emphasize the necessity of others in order to build mastery.

If it requires 10,000 hours to bring out a star, then surely there must be a team that enabled that star to shine. A number of people must have sacrificed to make it possible for a person to devote a ridiculous amount of time for deliberate practice.

The concept is silent about the specific degree of effect of hard work and talent on success. However, the 10,000 hour rule highlights a big contributor of success that usually goes unnoticedthe support of others: the sacrificial love of parents, the unselfish deeds of friends, the wise counsel of mentors, and the inherited present from predecessors.

For every successful individual, there’s always a team behind them, regardless of whether they are recognized or not. There is no self-made man, only a man who denies to give due credit. Those proclaiming to be self-made are still worthy to be modeled for their resilience and hard work. But they also ought to be viewed with caution for pride and hubris.

Through the years, I have realized that it is more noble to stay grounded in humility than to stay afloat in one’s prideful success. The 10,000 hour rule teaches us that success is never a standalone performance but rather a communal effort consisting of sacrifice, selflessness, and love.

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