Gladwell’s Wager

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” in his book Outliers suggests that if you practice enough at anything, you will master it.

New research suggests otherwise:

Meta-analyses of plenty of 88 studies by researcher Brooke Macnamara (and others) argue that practice is only a piece of the puzzle, and sometimes a small piece. Some people (we can call them geniuses, despite the present’s aversion to that world) are just good at things. They don’t need much practice to be great at it. Further, childhood still appears to be a special time when our brains can learn faster and better: people who begin to practice a task as adults (even accounting for time spent) accomplish less than children who practiced the same task for the same amount of time. Some of this has to do with deliberate training (targeted work aimed at improving, as opposed to simply jogging around in circles or playing chess while watching TV). But much of it is genetic: we are either born to be great or we aren’t.

The authors of the Slate piece “Practice Does Not Make Perfect” (David Z. HambrickFernanda Ferreira, and John M. Henderson) argue that this is scientific proof of people’s inherent inequality, saying that this should be the final nail in meritocracy’s coffin. Greatness does not depend on effort or exertion as much as good genes, an early start, and targeted training.

Thus, we should be testing IQs and sorting out people’s abilities early on not so we can push the ones with greatest potential to succeed, but to ensure that the ones without genetic prowess will have the support they need to reach their own potential. Their goal is social equality, arguing that the ones with genetic predispositions toward success will succeed even without intervention.

I’m on the fence on this one: I can hear a few conservatives shouting that this is unfair (true) and would limit the furthest-reaching individuals to something less than success. And some liberals would probably suggest that losing any sense of individuals as roughly equals would undermine our entire democracy. The libertarians would argue that such testing and intervention is an invasion of privacy. The greens would wonder why we’re so obsessed with humans.

Fortunately, I’ve been political party-free for three years! Every day is a blessing.

But that still leaves me in no-answers land. What’s the takeaway? How do we sort out society? Well, here are the extreme options:


No intervention or targeted practice Works hard by oneself with some targeted practice Works hard with targeted practice and receives positive social intervention
  1. Child with extraordinary potential
Possibly achieves some noticeable result but likely achieves none Achieves some potential, though not all possible success Achieves great or even all possible potential, alters society
  1. Child with no extraordinary potential
Achieves no noticeable result Achieves no noticeable result Achieves some potential, perhaps alters society


This table depicts hypothetical individuals (100% genius vs. 0% genius), so obviously it doesn’t apply directly in real life. But it does help illustrate the range of outcomes.

The real question is: which of these two categories will do more for the world? To better society? This is, funnily enough, the same question that affirmative action and its ilk attempt to answer. Namely: is it better to help those who can help themselves to achieve more than anyone else can achieve? Or should we help those achieve whom society otherwise abandons?

If you help the first category, you get flashier paintings and bigger corporations.

If you help the second category, you get a more equal society, with fewer fireworks.

Basically, if you help those in the first category the most, you have to hope that they end up giving back to society in ways that, typically, they don’t. If you help those in the second category more, you have to sacrifice some possibilities now for longer-term potential.

That’s what it really comes down to: are we willing to take steps now toward a society that could be great, one day? Or do we abandon the world at large and send our superstars to the forefront at the expense of their peers?


But aside from all this society business, I was going to talk about my term, “Gladwell’s Wager,” as a personal mantra. Thus, even if we don’t have any great potential, we ought to live as though we do, and practice as though we could, because this might in the end turn out to be true. It’s akin to the Calvinists’ concept of living as “visible saints;” in other words, even if we don’t know if we have eternal salvation, we may still live as though we do (for some unknown reason). In this case even if we’re genetic losers, we should practice Ping-Pong for all those long hours anyway; if we don’t we’ll certainly have wasted our potential, whether or not we had it at all.

Maybe this would be a good social goal as well: help everyone achieve as much as possible (or promote/encourage/support all children at random) as this might help everybody’s sense of purpose, while balancing social inequality a bit and also allowing some of those great, great people to get the support they need to climb even higher.

So against the authors I say: screw the IQ tests—give everybody everything. Should be easy, right?