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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Have you done your 10,000 hours? Add to ...

Q. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

A. Practice, practice, practice.

A year ago, Malcolm Gladwell, the phenomenally popular Canadian writer with the wild and crazy hair, published a book called Outliers, which took the world by storm. Outliers is an intriguing effort to explain how extremely successful people got that way. At its heart is something called the 10,000-hour rule, which is approximately the amount of time you have to invest in order to become an expert. Both the Beatles and Bill Gates put in their 10,000 hours (playing in seedy bars in Hamburg, or writing computer code) before they achieved greatness.

This theory has tremendous instinctual appeal. It's the answer to a question people ask me all the time. ("How do you manage to crank out a column three times a week?") And it satisfactorily explains why I'm no good at tennis or the violin. If only I'd chosen to put in the hours, I'd be a whole lot better. (Or so I like to think.)

The 10,000-hour rule is pleasantly egalitarian, just like Canada. It says that all else being equal, diligence beats natural talent any time. Of course, all else is seldom equal, and Mr. Gladwell also stresses the importance of luck. For example, Bill Gates was born at exactly the right time to usher in the personal computer revolution.

I thought of Outliers when I met the famous musician Lang Lang. Although still in his 20s, he's the most popular pianist on the planet. He's also a tremendously likeable guy, who wears spiky hair and gold-toned running shoes and tells funny stories. He comes from a working-class family in China, and began to play the piano when he was 3. His insanely driven father always insisted that Lang Lang had to be "Number One," and whenever he encountered setbacks, his father ordered him to practise harder. Lang Lang, too, had the luck to be born at the very moment when the Chinese went nuts over Western classical music, and started elite schools to train the best young musicians.

But here's the problem. Perseverance and luck don't go very far to explain Lang Lang's incredible success. There must have been 10,000 other driven prodigies like him. What set him apart was his extraordinary talent, combined with an internal motivation that is extremely rare. (He says his obsession with the piano began when he was 2, and saw one pictured on TV in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.) At one time, we would have said that Lang Lang is a genius.

"Genius" is not a word that Mr. Gladwell cares for much. Yet only it - or something like it - really explains the difference between people like Lang Lang and Bill Gates, and zillions of other dedicated musicians and software geeks who also put in their 10,000 hours.

For every bunk there comes a debunk, as a former editor of mine used to say, and Mr. Gladwell's debunk is at hand. The debunker is another wild and crazy-haired Canadian named Steven Pinker, a brilliant Harvard professor of psychology. Mr. Pinker reviewed Mr. Gladwell's latest book, What the Dog Saw, in The New York Times last week. After praising the author as a "minor genius," he wrote: "The common thread in Gladwell's writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favour of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition" - explaining his appeal to both the Horatio Alger right (Mr. Gladwell is extremely popular on the Dilbert circuit) and the egalitarian left.

Mr. Pinker, author of The Blank Slate and other books about the nature of human nature, has sharply different views about the nature of success. For instance, Mr. Gladwell claims that cognitive skills don't predict success, that intelligence scores do not relate closely to job performance and that above a minimum IQ of 120, higher intelligence doesn't bring greater intellectual achievements. Mr. Pinker claims they do.

Both are right, in a way. It's obvious that genius doesn't guarantee success. We all know brilliant losers, and we even know some dimwitted winners. But Mr. Pinker is more right, and he has mountains of data to prove it. Giftedness counts. A basketball player who's 7 ft. 1 will almost always beat a player who's 5 ft. 10. A swimmer with a long trunk and flipper feet will win a lot more medals than swimmers with ordinary feet (even if he smokes dope). Most Nobel Prize winners have IQs way above 120, and so does Bill Gates.

In private life, we all know these things matter. But in public we aren't supposed to say so (at least, not about cognition). Giftedness is unevenly distributed, and we do not want to be mistaken for elitists. We'd rather pretend that the world's a level playing field, and that if the outcomes are unequal, something in the environment must account for it. In public life, it's best not to talk about differing abilities at all.

Perhaps Mr. Gladwell's most tortured explanation for differing achievement is his effort to figure out why Chinese kids (as a group) are so much better at math than Western kids. The answer, he says, is found in centuries of rice-based agriculture. Working in labour-intensive rice paddies taught the Chinese self-discipline, perseverance, precision and teamwork. (Plus, the language for numbers is simpler, which makes math easier to learn.) This explanation makes sense only until you realize that rice isn't cultivated in the north of China, that other Asians are also good at math and that Chinese kids born and raised in North America retain much of their advantage.

Here's how Mr. Pinker would explain the math phenomenon: Chinese kids do indeed work hard - but they're also smarter. Not all or even most of them - just enough to make a difference. But we don't want to go there. Malcolm Gladwell's fables about rice paddies are far more reassuring. They tell us that we all can succeed, if only we try hard enough.

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