Debating Deliberate Practice

Outliers: The Story of Success (USA | UK | CANADA)
Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown, and Company, New York, 2008
309 pages

Outliers is the 2008 bestseller written by New Yorker magazine business and science writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and What the Dog Saw.  Gladwell is the son of mathematician Graham Gladwell and Outliers has a lot to say about mathematics, both indirectly and directly in the chapters “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” and “Marita’s Bargain”.  Most importantly, Outliers has popularized the theory of deliberate practice espoused by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson.

Briefly, in the perennial “nature versus nurture” debate, Ericsson and, to a lesser extent Gladwell in his book, takes an extreme environmental position, attributing expertise and what is commonly referred to as “genius” or “talent” solely to many hours of “deliberate practice.”  Ericsson and Gladwell argue that success is due to performing at least ten-thousand hours of this deliberate practice, typically over ten years.  The title of chapter two in Outliers is The 10,000-Hour Rule.  Gladwell, in particular, uses the term deliberate practice vaguely in the book and his public presentations, often using it interchangeably with practice, as will be critiqued further below.  Ericsson is more precise in defining what he means by deliberate practice and distinguishing it from ordinary practice or experience.  This is important because there are obviously many examples of scientists, mathematicians, athletes, chess players, and others with far more than 10,000 hours of ordinary experience or practice in their field who do not perform at the genius or star level that Ericsson and Gladwell are talking about.

In Ericsson’s theory, deliberate practice involves many hours of heavy practice of relatively rare tasks or activities.  The example he has used on a number of occasions is the backhand in tennis.  The backhand is relatively rare.  Deliberate practice involves, amongst other things, practicing the backhand heavily to master this relatively rare move.  Consequently, a tennis player who has engaged in this sort of practice can, on average, easily beat a player who has mere experience or even less intensive forms of practice.  Now, in fact, Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice is not quite this simple.  Sometimes he refers to deliberate practice as practice in which there is a strong conscious focus on self-criticism and self-improvement, intensively examining one’s performance for errors and room for improvement.  Deliberate practice is difficult to define across many different fields and activities.  What is deliberate practice in tennis may not be deliberate practice in mathematics.  What is deliberate practice in pure mathematics (theorem proving) may not be deliberate practice in applied mathematics (numerical computation, for example).

Outliers is largely composed of a series of stories that illustrate Gladwell’s main points.  Many of these stories are open to alternative interpretations and some are highly questionable.  This article will discuss a number of the stories in Outliers, pointing out their problems, with a special focus on deliberate practice and mathematics.

A Straw Man

Like many political works across the political spectrum, Outliers is guilty of setting up a straw man that is easy to debate and defeat.  Gladwell treats the reader to some seemingly absurd quotes from Florida Governor Jeb Bush, President George W. Bush’s brother and President George H.W. Bush’s son, describing himself as a “self-made man”.  In Outliers, Gladwell’s unnamed debate opponent, possibly Jeb Bush, is arguing that success is solely about individual talent and genius.  There are no significant environmental, cultural, or other factors involved.  Just because your Dad is the President has nothing to do with your relative success, say compared to that guy across town who’s Dad is a janitor.  Certainly not.  I did it all myself.  Of course, this is a position taken by very few, probably not even Jeb Bush despite the quotes.  Rather the actual debate is between those who view inherent talent, genius, hard work, and so forth as relatively more important on average than environmental factors, especially in “first world” nations such as the United States which ostensibly have democracy, free markets, and the rule of law.

Correlation is Not Causation

Outliers opens with the story of Roseto, an Italian-American community in Pennsylvania with a strikingly low rate of heart disease even though the residents of Roseto appear to share many of the allegedly unhealthy dietary habits of other Americans.  Gladwell recounts how medical researchers have theorized that this healthy state of affairs is due to the traditional family and social culture maintained by the Italian-Americans in Roseto, in which respect Roseto apparently does differ from neighboring communities and the United States as a whole.   This incidentally flies directly in the face of the medical orthodoxy blaming heart disease and heart attacks on diet, lack of exercise, fatty foods, and especially cholesterol levels which can be controlled by prescription drugs.

The problem is that what the researchers have demonstrated in Roseto is a correlation between an unusual lifestyle, for Americans, and better health.   That is all.  They have not proven this is the cause and the data would appear to directly contradict the causal theories of heart disease and heart attacks favored by medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies peddling anti-cholesterol drugs.

Indeed, this is a common problem in modern medicine and medical research.   Many reigning views — paradigms in the overused language of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn — are based, on close examination, on statistical correlations between disease or health and various factors.  Much of the modern theory of heart disease and heart attacks is based on the famous Framingham, Massachusetts heart disease study which showed correlations between various factors such as weight and diet and heart disease and heart attacks.  However, there are other studies such as the Roseto study touted by Gladwell that appear, at least to the naive observer unschooled int he elaborate theories that modern researchers frequently produce to explain otherwise grossly contradictory data, to disagree.

Thus, the Roseto story may illustrate the primacy of culture over other individualistic causes as Gladwell proposes.  Then again, it may not.  It may simply be another data point indicating that we don not understand heart disease and heart attacks nearly as well as the medical experts believe (or, at least, claim).


It is Not What You Know; It is When You Were Born

Gladwell follows with a story about champion Canadian hockey players, who remarkably are nearly all born in the months of January, February, and March of each year.  Shocking!  Very few would disagree with the proposition that success in hockey or other competitive activities should be about talent, skill, determination, and so forth, and certainly not which month you were born in.  This oddity is thought to be due to the annual age cutoff in hockey competitions in Canada which gives an advantage to kids born at the start of the year who are the oldest and thus largest and most mature members of their age cohort in each year.

Certainly this is unfair and a better system would compensate for this effect.  But, how much does it tell us about the relative importance of innate talent, if it exists, and environment?  Actually, it may tell us very little.  After all, the vast majority of kids in Canada who try out for hockey don’t end up in the champion teams.  What this oddity may tell us is only that, among those with the highest innate hockey talent, those born in the first few months of the year have an unfair advantage over their otherwise talented competitors.

If there is an effective cutoff in talent or size or some other variable innate to the person, then the very best will be sorted solely by external or random factors such as birthdates.  This does not tell us that environment or culture is King, but rather that there is an upper bound to innate talent and there are more competitors at the upper bound than available positions.  As the global population expands, we would expect more and more people to exist at the upper bounds of human potential.

As a specific example, suppose that innate hockey ability can be measured on a special scale from 0 to 100.  The potential best hockey players in the world score 100.  One-hundred thousand Canadian kids compete for 1000 positions on twenty national hockey teams.  If there are more than one thousand Canadian would-be hockey players who score 100 on the innate hockey ability scale, purely environmental or chance factors will start to kick in and contribute to the players who end up on the teams.  If there are 10,000 top hockey players competing for 1000 positions, the environmental effects are likely to be very strong.  For example, only players born in early months in the year who have an unfair advantage in size and maturity may be selected.  This does not mean innate ability is not very important relative to environment.  In fact, 90,000 players fail because they lack the innate ability.  Only 9,000 players fail to make the teams because of environmental effects.

Gladwell plays up the clustering of the birthdates of software entrepreneurs, corporate takeover lawyers, and others in several other places in the book.  The same objection noted above applies to these examples as well.

A Hard Day’s Night

Outliers then introduces the concept of deliberate practice and the 10,000 hour rule in earnest.  To illustrate Ericsson’s theory Gladwell tells the titillating tale of the Beatles sojourn in Hamburg, Germany where they ostensibly acquired ten-thousand hours of deliberate practice playing seven days a week, eight hours per day or more, at — yes — a strip club.  Gladwell returns to this tale several times in Outliers and obviously enjoyed telling the story during his promotional appearances for the book; videos of many of his presentations are available on the Web.

With all due respect to the genuine musical talents of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, popular music is clearly about a lot more than talent and indeed occasionally no genuine talent at all seems to be required.  There have, for example, been scandals in which a performer could not even sing; the voice was provided by someone else, perhaps less photogenic and less sexy.  There are very few fat or ugly people among popular music stars  The manufacturing of pop stars and bands is so obvious that it is the subject of repeated satire in popular culture, movies, and so forth.  The slimy music executive who manufactures a popular musician or band is a stock character in movies and television.  More to the point, did playing songs at a strip club in Germany really qualify as the tedious deliberate practice in Ericsson’s theory?  This is rather doubtful, but it is a catchy story with plenty of sex.


Is Bill Gates a Champion Software Developer?

Outliers also tells the tale of Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and former CEO, whom Gladwell apparently interviewed.  In particular, Gladwell tells the story of how Bill Gates supposedly acquired at least ten-thousand hours of deliberate practice on a time sharing computer as a kid in the 1960s.  Outliers attributes Gates and Microsoft’s success in no small measure to this practice and Gates skills as a software developer.

As with the Beatles, it is difficult to evaluate this story.  Did it really happen?  Did Bill Gates practice on the time sharing computer qualify as Ericsson’s vaguely defined deliberate practice?  Most importantly, is BIll Gates and Microsoft’s phenomenal success due to technical proficiency in software development?

The answer to this last question is probably not.  Much of Microsoft’ success can be traced to a shrewd business deal in which Bill Gates sold an operating system, now known as DOS, that he did not have and did not create, to IBM for the new IBM PC.  IBM then proceeded to make a series of colossal missteps over the next several years which culminated in sabotaging their OS/2 operating system and handing the PC software market to Microsoft, essentially an IBM supplier.  Bill Gates is a shrewd businessman and negotiator; of this, there is no doubt.  Was he a champion software developer: most probably not.


What is Deliberate Practice?

Both the story of the Beatles and the story of Bill Gates illustrate the problem of defining exactly what is deliberate practice.  In his book and public presentations, Gladwell usually sidesteps this issue, often using the terms deliberate practice, experience, and practice interchangeably.  Yet, the definition of deliberate practice is central to Ericsson’s theory.  There were and are thousands of chess players with many more hours of ordinary experience or practice than Bobby Fischer when he became an International Grand Master in chess.  The same with many other intellectual activities.  Yet, many highly experienced individuals do not perform at an extremely high level like Bobby Fischer in chess or Tiger Woods in golf or Albert Einstein in physics.  If just any experience or practice worked, most intellectual activities would be dominated by octogenarians.  Yet, in many activities this is not the case.  Why do some people with only 10,000 hours of experience grossly outperform others with 20 or 30,000 hours of experience?  It is this problem that requires the definition of a special kind of practice — deliberate practice — to avoid invoking innate talent or genius.

Chris and Oppie

In arguing for nurture over nature, Outliers tells the stories of Chris Langan, allegedly the smartest man in the world, and the famous physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb during World War II.  Langan hailed from a poor, rather dysfunctional family and flamed out of a college allegedly due to administrative problems that led to the cancellation of his scholarship.  He has had a succession of rather unimpressive jobs, is now a farmer, and won $250,000 on the One versus One Hundred game show.  Oppenheimer was the brilliant son of a wealthy Jewish garment manufacturer in New York City and sailed through the attempted murder of his thesis adviser at Cambridge with a a slap on the wrist, to be later picked by General Leslie Groves as scientific director of the Manhattan Project — over many more highly qualified physicists such as Leo Szilard and Karl Compton, who do not seem to have had a track record of trying to murder someone.

Gladwell attributes Oppenheimer’s rather remarkable success, especially compared to Langan, to Oppenheimer’s sophisticated upper class social skills acquired during his posh upbringing — contrasted to Langan’s presumably poor working-class social skills.  This is somewhat curious.  By many accounts, Oppenheimer was quite arrogant and even admirers concede that his notorious arrogance contributed to his eventual downfall.  And, ahem, he had tried to murder his thesis adviser.

In Gladwell’s account, Oppenheimer talks his way out of an attempted murder charge.  There is not even a suggestion that Oppenheimer’s wealthy father pulled some strings (paid someone off) to make the potential attempted murder charges go away.  A poor man’s felony is a rich man’s prank.

Why would General Groves have selected Oppenheimer with his history of attempted murder, mental problems, extensive connections to the Communist Party through his wife, mistresses, graduate students, and friends, abrasive, arrogant personality, and limited resume over Leo Szilard, Karl Compton, or many other more qualified physicists of the time?  General Groves did not initiate the Manhattan Project.  By most accounts, Leo Szilard, a friend and business partner of Albert Einstein and a rather murky character in his own right, was the original mastermind of the program.  General Groves was brought in later as the project grew and quickly took a disliking to Szilard, forcing him out.  Groves was also embroiled in feuds with other prominent physicists such as Karl Compton.

In selecting Oppenheimer to run the Manhattan Project, Groves was promoting a relatively young (38), second tier physicist who would be heavily dependent on Groves patronage for his position: certainly not the case with Szilard or Compton, for example.  Oppenheimer’s dubious background probably ensured that Oppenheimer could be easily disposed of if he zigged when he was supposed to zag.  Years later, in disputes over the Air Force’s atomic bomber program and the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer appears to have zigged when he was supposed to zag and, indeed, he was easily discredited and removed from influence, becoming a martyr for the American Left in the process.

This blindness to politics is one of the recurring problems with Outliers.   In Gladwell’s account, the rich and powerful succeed because they have a better culture and because their parents take them to extra violin practice or pay for them to practice on time sharing computers.  It is not genes but hard work, deliberate practice, that Gladwell uses to explain success.  There is no politics, no string pulling, no skullduggery, no old boy networks or hidden agendas.

This real or feigned political naivete is particularly evident in Gladwell’s response to some of Chris Langan’s comments about Langan’s unhappy experiences with academia:

Even is his discussion of Harvard, it’s as if Langan has no conception of the culture and particulars of the institution that he is talking about.  (Langan speaking) When you accept a paycheck from these people, it is going to come down to what you want to do and what you feel is right versus what the man says you can do to receive another paycheck. What?  One of the main reasons college professors accept a lower paycheck than they could get in private industry is that university life gives them the freedom to do what they want to do and what they feel is right.  Langan has Harvard backwards.

Oh, really?  This argument that researchers and scholars in academia could make more money in industry and thus must be motivated by altruism and academic freedom is extremely common.  It is repeated in both popular science and by academics themselves.  It comes up in job interviews when academic researchers are recruiting people to work for their labs.  It plays a role in the decision by many to go to graduate school, pursue a Ph.D., and try to become a professor, often a disappointing experience.  It also gives the pronouncements of academics and researchers the added authority and credibility of the selfless truth seeker.  But is it true?

Researchers and scholars may pursue a career in academia because they believe they have a special aptitude, whether inborn or acquired, for their specific field.  I have talked with physicists who cited this as their reason for pursuing a career in physics.  If one believes that one has a high general intelligence and could do whatever one wants, then one might pursue a career in physics or another academic field out of altruism.  On the other hand if one believes one has a special advantage in a specific field, then one may pursue an academic career in preference to industry because one expects to do well specifically in that field, better than one could do in industry.  Despite very high intelligence, Chris Langan did not do well in industry, at least until his game show appearance.  Indeed, many of the stories that Gladwell recounts, which call into question the notion of general intelligence, undermine this argument.

The deliberate practice that Gladwell touts in his book is about practicing specific problems and techniques used in specific narrow fields whether these are chess or golf or the exotic techniques of particle physics.  Deliberate practice is not the general intelligence of Lewis Terman that Gladwell ridicules.  Someone who through happenstance or careful thought engages in huge amounts of deliberate practice to score well in tests in a specific academic field does not, in many cases, have easily transferable skills to industry.  Gladwell’s own argument about the the true nature of success actually significantly undercuts the argument that he makes in discussing Chris Langan’s comments on Harvard.

Modern research is not a side activity of professors who are principally paid to teach students.  It is often discussed in popular science and by academics themselves as if it were, but it is not.  Rather it is largely funded by gigantic government bureaucracies such as the Department of Energy (DOE), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and several others.  All told, the United States federal government spends about $100 billion on activities that are classified as research and development.  Major universities such as Harvard receive billions of dollars in grants and contracts from these agencies.  Faculty are recruited and rewarded most especially for bringing in grant money from the government.  Modern researchers usually list the dollar amount of grants or contracts that they have received on their curriculum vitae  The very top researchers in major fields such as molecular biology or high energy physics do fairly well financially; it is not clear they could have done better in industry.  This does not mean that the vast majority of graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and junior faculty, most of whom will not get a tenured faculty position and will eventually leave their field for industry, are not accepting low salaries and could do better in industry.  In most cases, grad students and post-docs who are US Citizens, have a green card, or who otherwise can move freely from job to job could find a better paying job in industry.

In many respects, Gladwell’s account is not that different from the conservative Republicans like Jeb Bush that he is presumably debating.  Instead of attributing the success of the upper class to some mysterious genetic advantage, Gladwell repeatedly invokes virtuous hard work, deliberate practice, and special cultural advantages such as superior social skills.

In comparing Chris Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer, Gladwell is tearing down a straw man.  Coming from a very wealthy family, Oppenheimer had enormous advantages in addition to genius.  On the other hand, although a genius, Langan came from an extremely poor and dysfunctional family environment.  If one argues that innate talent always wins out, then this comparison easily settles the argument: no it does not.   Gladwell compares two performers for whom the environmental differences are extreme.  Even those who believe innate ability is a very strong determinant, say contributing ninety percent of outcomes on average, might still expect to see dramatic differences in outcomes and performance between an Oppenheimer and a Chris Langan.  What happens when we compare a genius like Chris Langan from a stable, middle class family with someone of average intelligence also from a stable, middle class family?


The Problem with Deliberate Practice

In the United States (at least since Sputnik in 1957), math and science education are always in trouble.  The schools are always failing to teach math and science.  There is always a desperate shortage of mathematicians and scientists.  Ten Ph.D.’s for every tenure track position is way too few.  The United States desperately needs more Ph.D.’s.  Some other nation — Russia, Japan, and now China — is always running circles around the spoiled, wimpy, not to mention dumb American school kids.  The sky is falling! Send more money!  In the chapters “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” and “Marita’s Bargain” Gladwell discusses the perennial issue of math education in the United States and makes specific suggestions to improve math education based on the theory of deliberate practice as he sees it.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the bottom line is that students should work, study and practice harder.  Gladwell proposes to abolish summer vacation and replace it with many more weeks of drilling and drudgery in hopes of producing a nation of virtuous Asian-style math whizzes (China being the current foreign nation running circles around America’s mediocre math and science students).

There is another, less flattering name for deliberate practice: rote memorization.  Anders Ericsson’s research focuses heavily on activities that involve short, timed contests or exams: competitive games like chess, sports, music performance, and, of course, academic exams and tests.  If a test or competition involves activities that are too complex to figure out from first principles in the time allotted — even for a genius — then one must practice and memorize the activity to succeed in the test or competition.  A tennis player does not have time to figure out how to hit a backhand during a tennis match.  He or she had better know how to do it to defeat a player who does.  Only the most extreme innate intelligence, like the fictional hero of the Pretender TV show, could adapt and perform in real time.

There is no doubt that there are many real world, relatively repetitive activities that require practicing and memorization.  We rightly expect air traffic controllers and pilots to know what to do, how to fly an airplane, and so forth.  We do not want them to be figuring out what to do while flying a plane with hundreds of passengers.  But does memorizing the answer to a problem that we (humankind) already know how to answer teach the student how to solve a problem that we don’t know the answer to: curing cancer, free energy,  an end to war?

Invention and discovery, research and development, software development, and many other activities, including, for example, responding to a new kind of emergency, depend on the ability of scientists, engineers, and ordinary citizens to figure out new things and improvise.  Deliberate practice will not necessarily teach these important skills; in many cases, we do not even know what these skills are.

Gladwell quotes several famous education reformers from the nineteenth century with evident disdain for their enthusiasm for summer vacations and (OH MY GOD) play:

It is when thus relieved from the state of tension belonging to actual study that boys and girls, as well as men and women, acquire the habit of thought and reflection, and of forming their own conclusions independently of what they are taught and the authority of others.

Gladwell expresses astonishment at the nineteenth century notion that one could study too much or much or that it could have adverse consequences such as insanity, attributing such mushy thinking to the wimpy Western farming tradition as opposed to the virtuous work-until-you-drop tradition of the Asian rice paddy.

Yet, there is a striking pattern in many major invention and discoveries that the nineteenth century education reformers may have been well aware of.  A very high proportion of major inventions and discoveries have been made on a break, a vacation for example, when not actively thinking about the problem.   According to Greek historical accounts, Archimedes solved the problem of determining the gold content of the King’s crown without destroying the crown (a major breakthrough) while taking a bath.  Kepler realized that Mars had an elliptical orbit over the Easter Holiday in 1605.  The mathematician William Rowan Hamilton conceived of quaternions during a recreational walk.  In his autobiography, Nikola Tesla described suddenly seeing the design of the alternating current motor in his head while watching the sunset and discussing Goethe.  James Watt claimed he conceived of the separate condenser steam engine during a walk in the park.  Erwin Schrodinger came up with the Schrodinger Equation on a ski vacation in the Alps.  In his book on mathematical invention, the great French mathematician Jacques Hadamard concluded that this was part of the general pattern of inventions; they frequently occurred during a break.

There is also evidence in support of the nineteenth century notion that one can overdo study.  The famous mathematician Felix Klein burned himself out in his scholarly duel with Poincare and lost his ability to perform many mathematical research activities, devoting himself to administration and mentoring other mathematicians.   Several famous mathematicians including Georg Cantor and Kurt Godel developed serious psychological problems.  Godel may have starved himself to death.  Many inventors and discoverers have described a period of mental exhaustion after making their “breakthrough”.  Modern software developers often experience “burnout” after prolonged programming projects.  Software development has very high turnover rates and many people enter and, more to the point here, leave the field every year.

Deliberate practice presents the hazard of substituting rote memorization for deeper understanding.  In many respects a form of studying for the exam, it likely can deliver high levels of performance on tests and exams, substituting easily measurable technical skills (such as basic arithmetic) for harder to measure abstract reasoning skills and “intuition” that are essential to solve many problems that we do not yet know how to solve.

© 2011 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. is a software developer, research scientist, and consultant. He works primarily in the area of complex algorithms that embody advanced mathematical and logical concepts, including speech recognition and video compression technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at jmcgowan11@earthlink.net.

Get more stuff like this

Get interesting math updates directly in your inbox.

6 Comments

  1. Johan April 18, 2011
  2. Alexandra April 20, 2011
  3. Neal | Sax Station April 23, 2011
  4. John F. McGowan April 25, 2011
  5. John McGowan October 26, 2011
  6. John McGowan October 26, 2011

Leave a Reply

Join thousands of
math enthusiasts

Get free math updates directly in your inbox.