Sunday, October 12, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell, The Outlier Toque & 10,000 Hours of Playing with Yarn

"Achievement is talent plus preparation"  
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers 

Malcolm Gladwell has been taking a fair amount of hits lately from the mainstream media and certain corners of the internet over a theory he popularized in his book Outliers, The Story of Success. I sometimes think that I have read a different book by someone with the same name, and the same book title, because the book they are describing is not the book I read. I even went back yesterday and re-read the chapter on the ten-thousand-hour rule just to make sure I wasn't idealizing what Gladwell had written. Yes, he is a proponent of the ten-thousand-hour rule. No, he does not theorize or promote that theory as the sole factor in succeeding. For those not familiar with the book, and if you haven't read it I highly recommend it, the ten-thousand-hour rule is roughly the amount of hours an individual needs to put in to become an expert in most fields where there is a level of complexity or skills to be mastered. 

A recent study came out reaching the conclusion that the ten-thousand-hour rule may be inaccurate. In fairness, I have not read the new study written by Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald, but I have read the one by Ericsson and his colleagues, the latter being one of the sources Gladwell used when writing Outliers

Most of the media pieces I have read about the release of the new study seem to gleefully toss Gladwell on the fire for popularizing the theory in a book that was published in 2008. That was six years ago. Outliers is not a book solely about the ten-thousand-hour rule. The part practice plays in success is one of several components, including innate talent and the opportunities, privileges and lucky breaks that make up the complete story. 

The ten-thousand-hour rule was a not a new theory when Gladwell wrote about it. The phrase "practice makes perfect" has been around since the middle of the 16th century and is a revised form of "use makes mastery," according to Forty years ago Herbert Simon and William Chase published their conclusions in American Scientist, estimating that it took between 10,000 and 50,000 hours to become a chess master. Another major study was conducted by researchers K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf TH. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer that was published by Psychological Review in 1993. Other authors have drawn upon the same studies including Michael J.A. Howe who wrote the brilliant book Genius Explained. 

As I read more and more articles I found myself wondering when the current study was initiated. Was Gladwell's writing on the ten-thousand-hour rule the catalyst for the new study? Or had it begun prior to Outliers being published? 

When I re-read Outliers recently I noticed that I kept thinking about my definition of personal success, not necessarily professional, and how the theories proposed in the book applied to my passion for my creative endeavors. I wondered how many hours I had put into crocheting over my lifetime. There were large stretches of time I did not work at my craft. Despite that, when I do the math, I probably do have about 10,00 hours in. I'm not sure I would call myself an expert, but I would say that I have mastered the art of crochet. There is a level of complexity and skills you need to be able to design patterns and I have achieved those. It would be interesting to know how many hours of practice the top crochet and knitting designers have. Unfortunately no one has undertaken that study yet, but I would love to see those results.  

My first and last knitwear design
I learned to knit at the same time I learned to crochet but for some reason I struggled with two needles as opposed to one hook. Crocheting was more organic, so I stuck with that and I quit knitting. I did eventually pick up knitting again as an adult. While I do have some proficiency knitting, I am not even close to master status, and would be hard pressed to design a knitwear item. I made my friend Deb a sweater I designed a few years ago,  but it was a struggle for me to accomplish the task. I would hate to see someone try and make a sweater from those pattern notes! I just muddled through as I went along so it was a fortunate mix of talent with yarn, luck and perseverance. 

Natural talent plays a role as to whether or not we stick with something. Most of us will not continue to play tennis, or the piano, or paint if we have no aptitude for it. You aren't going to get 10,000 hours of practice in if you aren't very good at something, and most of us don't enjoy doing things we aren't very good at. I'm a terrible runner, I hate doing it, so I only run for subway trains and buses. Although I should get extra credit for running in heels. If I had been as inept at crocheting as I was at knitting, or running, I most likely would not be writing this piece today. 

When I was younger I would ride my bike down to the local tennis courts at my high school. They had these concrete racquetball courts there and I would spend hours on my own just hitting the tennis ball against that cement wall. I got pretty adept, I went from constantly chasing missed balls to rarely fanning on a forehand or backhand. I never stuck with it though after I left high school because I had no confidence in my tennis talent.  It was just me on my own. I had the passion, I was putting in the hours, but was missing a key component to succeed. A mentor. 

I had the support of a master crocheter and knitter. That education played a vital role in my development. Success is also about being able to take advantage of opportunities as they are presented. My aunt supplied me with the financial and educational support I needed in order to practice my craft. Without either of those I would not have had the opportunity to put in the hours. 

I started designing and writing my own patterns at a time when all things yarn was coming back into fashion. The creation on the internet of sites like Ravelry allowed knitters and crocheters to find others with the same passions. Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of patterns available and not just the limited selection of 15-25 books on crochet at the local Barnes & Noble.  I had the talent, I had the 10,000 hours and I was ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it came along. 
“It is not the brightest who succeed,” Gladwell writes in Outliers. "Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

I think that practice has to be a key component in higher levels of achievement, but it is by no means the only component. Outliers, for me anywaysis an attempt to redefine the word success, and the criticisms currently directed towards Mr. Gladwell are an indication of the aftermath of success in this country. Creativity, genius, and the roles talent, genetics and yes even practice, play in the creation of personal and professional achievements are all questions that have yet to reach a definitive conclusion. Fulfillment is a blend of talent, practice, passion and opportunity. The business world has latched onto to Gladwell's work, but the possibilities for societal change regarding success and opportunity are what makes his work exciting for me. The best books are the ones you still think about long after you have read the last page.

The free pattern this week is a nod to Malcolm Gladwell, The Outlier Toque. A toque is the term Canadians use for what Americans call a beanie hat. It is a slouchy style worked up with with sock yarn. Two of the samples are made with Noro sock yarn and the solid color hat is stitched using Cascade Heritage yarn. The pattern is available on Ravelry & Craftsy as a free download. 

The Outlier Toque stitched in Noro Kureyon Sock and Noro Silk Garden Sock

The Outlier Toque stitched in Cascade Heritage Sock

1 comment:

  1. How appropriate to feature a toque on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. :D

    10,000 hours eh? I would have no idea how to even calculate how many hours I have in with beadwork. I know it's well over 10k in general crafting, esp. if you include all the stuff I made when I was a kid.