Summary: Chapter Two: The 10,000-Hour Rule
Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, is one of the most influential computer programmers of all time. Joy attended the University of Michigan, thinking to become a biologist or mathematician, but he became obsessed with the Computer Center that opened during his freshman year. In 1975, he enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley. At both schools, Bill Joy spent much of his free time programming. After graduating from Berkeley, he founded Sun Microsystems, eventually rewriting the Java programming language. He would appear to be a good example of success based on individual merit.
If achievement is the combination of talent and preparation, how much does innate talent affect one’s success? In the 1990s, a study at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music determined that, regardless of instrument, all of the world-class students had practiced more than 10,000 hours. They did not find anyone at the top level who spent less time, nor did they find anyone who spent that amount of time who was not successful. Neurologist Daniel Levitin states that, across many fields, world-class expertise is never accomplished in less than 10,000 hours. The law holds even for a prodigy like Mozart, who started composing at age six: he did not compose his first masterwork until he was twenty-one. The youth athletes from the previous chapter who made it to the professional level put in 10,000 hours of practice. And note: individuals cannot normally put in that much practice without help. Most people will need supportive parents, financial stability, and probably a special program—like an all-star youth hockey team.
Bill Joy was certainly intelligent, having achieved a perfect score on the math portion of his Scholastic Aptitude Test. His opportunities, however, were extraordinary. Bill Joy happened to choose a college that had a time-sharing computer available, something that was exceedingly rare during the early 1970s. While most students had to pay for computer time, Bill Joy exploited a bug in the college’s system to gain unlimited access to the Computer Center, which was walking distance from where he lived. He was able to spend almost all of his free time programming, and when he went to Berkeley, he had a terminal at home, where he could program until he fell asleep at his keyboard. Bill Joy was able to accumulate 10,000 hours while in college.
The Beatles are another example of the 10,000-hours principle. In 1960, when they were still a high school rock band, they were given the chance to travel to Hamburg, Germany and play in various strip clubs. The Beatles were contracted to play for hours every night, seven nights a week, and thereby were forced to develop as musicians. After a year and a half, they had performed 270 nights. By 1964, when they first found commercial success, they had performed an estimated twelve hundred times—more than most band bands do in an entire career.
Born in Seattle to affluent parents, Bill Gates was sent to a private school for seventh grade. The school’s Mother’s Club funded the purchase of a time-sharing terminal connected to a mainframe computer in Seattle. As an eighth-grader, Gates was able to start programming. When the Mother’s Club could no longer pay for computing time, Gates was able to continue programming at Information Sciences, Inc. (ISI) through a connection he made with one of the school parents. After that, one of ISI’s founders recommended Gates for a programming project at the Bonneville Power station. Gates was able to leave high school during his senior year to program for the Bonneville Power station as an independent study project. By the time Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, he was well past 10,000 hours of experience.
In a list of the seventy-five richest people in human history, going as far back as ancient Egypt and converting all wealth estimates into modern U.S. dollars, fourteen names are Americans born within nine years of one another (including John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan). What accounts for the fact that a list that covers thousands of years should have 20 percent of its members so close together? The fourteen Americans happened to live during the 1860s and 1870s, when the American economy was undergoing a huge transformation: the expansion of the railroads and the creation of Wall Street. Gladwell argues that the fourteen names are so close in birth date because they were all the perfect age to seize the opportunities available.
Bill Joy and Bill Gates were also born at just the right time. In 1975, Popular Electronics ran a cover story about the Altair 8800, a $397 microcomputer kit. Someone born before 1954 would likely already have a job with IBM, working on mainframes. Someone born after 1956 would likely still be in high school. Most of the biggest pioneers in the modern computer industry, including Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Steve Jobs, and Eric Schmidt, were born in 1954 or 1955, as were Joy’s three fellow founders at Sun.
Analysis: Chapter Two: The 10,000-Hour Rule
Gladwell introduces his controversial and widely disputed 10,000 hours rule. Simply put, the rule suggests that to master a skill, an individual needs to practice it for 10,000 hours. Gladwell argues that, like hockey, success in computing requires both skill and luck, rather than pure, simple, natural ability. Gladwell's example is situated at the University of Michigan, specifically the new computer center, in 1971. The story of Bill Joy undermines the idea of success as an inexplicable, miraculous accomplishment. Though Gladwell agrees Joy is bright and talented, Joy also lucks into several happy accidents that allow for increased access. These strokes of luck give Joy the opportunity to become a computer expert. Gladwell's use of a psychological study conducted at the Academy of Music in Berlin, Germany, in the early 1990s forms the crux of his argument in this chapter. However, critics have suggested that this study was flawed and that there is no incontrovertible evidence to suggest that doing anything for 10,000 hours guarantees mastery. Rather, practice is, as Gladwell points out elsewhere throughout the text, just one of the factors in success. However, he also correlates the familial and economic advantages necessary to reach 10,000 of practice time, reinforcing the larger thesis of the book.
Gladwell argues that the Beatles and Bill Gates are examples of his notion of time spent directly relating to mastery. While detailing how the Beatles reached the 10,000-hour threshold for mastery, Gladwell also highlights the lucky breaks they had in achieving success, like the connection that landed the band in Hamburg’s music scene. Additionally, while Gates has become something of an American folk hero, Gladwell argues that Gates did not reach his great achievements completely on his own. His wealthy family, his lucky interaction with a computer in 1968, and his college experience allowed him far greater access to opportunity. Without this combination of factors, along with his intelligence and drive, Gates would likely not have become a household name. Again, Gladwell reinforces the idea that success comes not only from being good, but from having no small amount of luck, whether that be time, money, or, in an echo of the hockey player example, birthdate.
Gladwell claims that one important factor of success is the year in which one is born. In terms of wealth, there are 14 Americans, born in a nine-year period of the 1800s, who are among the richest people in history. This suggests that there was some connection to when they were born and the opportunities available to them in terms of innovation and invention, as well as the position they were in to take advantage of the opportunities. Similarly, men born in the same era of Bill Gates were coming of age at the bleeding edge of technology. Proximity to social and technological change, as well as the wealth and connections to take advantage of it, put these men in an advantageous position. Being in the right place at the right time, Gladwell argues, has at least as much to do with success as one's inborn abilities.