Did Malcolm Gladwell Rip Me Off?

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. His books, especially The Tipping Point, have validated many of my long-held business philosophies.

But when his new book, Outliers, came out a few months ago, I started getting e-mails from friends and colleagues with disturbing news.

“Did you see Malcolm Gladwell’s new book? It’s great… but it looks like Gladwell borrowed one of your ideas. Didn’t you write about how many hours it takes to master a skill several years ago?”

I did. (Way back in 2000.)

Here’s my theory in a nutshell:

There are four levels of proficiency in any valuable skill – incompetence, competence, mastery, and virtuosity.

• To get past incompetence, you must spend about 1,000 hours practicing the skill you eventually want to master.

• After putting in about 1,000 hours, you will be competent. To achieve mastery, you will have to continue to practice that skill for a total of 5,000 hours.

• Virtuosity is extremely rare. You can’t get it simply by practicing. You must also have a natural gift. Even then, you must practice at least 10,000 hours to achieve it.

Michael Jordan was a virtuoso basketball player. Mozart was a virtuoso composer. Warren Buffett has been a virtuoso investor. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you must become a virtuoso. You can achieve greatness and make a fortune by becoming a master of your chosen skill.

In his most recent bestseller, Gladwell observed that it takes about 10,000 hours for a person to become the best in his or her field. He doesn’t distinguish between mastery and virtuosity. But he does talk about the many hours of practice it takes to be good.

Did he get it from me? I don’t know. I’ve been saying it for 10 years. Maybe it was intuition on my part that turned out to be right. Or it maybe it’s an example of a tipping-point idea – many minds thinking about similar things at the same time.

The main thing is that both Gladwell and I agree on the importance of practice. When you see Tiger Woods swing his nine iron, you may think, “He’s gifted. He’s got a natural talent for golf.” But what you don’t see are the 12-hour days he puts in – even now – perfecting that natural swing.

Gladwell calls the people he examines in his latest book “outliers.” He points out that these virtuosos achieved greatness not only because they practiced their skills for many hours, but because of a series of lucky breaks. They had such advantages as living in the right places, having access to the right resources, and/or having well-to-do parents who gave them lots of encouragement.

He claims that without the benefit of such advantages, a person cannot become great – no matter how talented they are or how hard they work.

He supports this argument by pointing to Bill Gates and The Beatles, among others.

Gates got his start at an exclusive, privileged high school – one of the only schools in the country that gave students access to computers. This early exposure – combined with hard work, ambition, and a number of other opportunities that came his way – put Gates on track to be where he is today.

The Beatles began as a high school bar band in Liverpool, England, destined for an undistinguished and short run… until they were invited to perform in Germany. They played in Hamburg five times between 1960 and 1962 – eight hours a night, seven nights a week, for a total of more than 2,000 hours. As a result of that experience, they ended up perfecting a wide range of music that was the basis of their breakthrough success back home in 1964.

Gladwell is very good at what he does. And I was tempted, while reading the book, to buy into his argument that you need these “special circumstances” to become great.

But, ultimately, I think it’s B.S.

To master skills and achieve greatness, what you need is tenacity, humility, time, and a good teacher. Here’s the Michael Masterson formula for success.

• First, identify the skill you need to master in order to accomplish the goal you are after. If, for example, your goal is to become the owner of a multimillion-dollar business, the skill you need to master is marketing. If you want to be a professional golfer, you need to master a consistently perfect swing. As Ben Hogan says in his classic book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, “No one can play good golf unless he has a correct, powerful, repeating swing.”

• Suppress your ego and accept the fact that, right now, you are probably not very good at that skill. But that’s okay. You are just starting out. Find a teacher and start practicing. After 1,000 hours of practice, you will be competent.

• Resist the urge to coast on your competence. Most people – regardless of the goal they choose – get to a level of competence and try to wing it from there. This is a common but deadly mistake. The world is full of competent people. Competence means average. If you settle for competence, you will perform at an average level, earn an average income, and never know the pleasure of being very good.

To rise from competence to mastery, you can expect to put in a total of 5,000 hours of concentrated effort. You can accelerate the pace and reduce those hours – maybe by one-third – by getting a master to train you. But you must put in the time.

• Once you have achieved mastery, you will have to deal with your ego in a completely different way. You will be tempted to think that you can become a virtuoso. Or, worse, you may already think of yourself as a one. This is the mistake of hubris, the prideful sin that Aristotle said is the fatal flaw of most great men.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seems to be saying that your ultimate goal should be virtuosity. I think that is foolish. If nature has blessed you with the gifts to become a Tiger Woods or Warren Buffett, you will be the best of the best. But that is not what you are after.

My Jiu Jitsu instructor, Marcel Ferreira, made this point the other morning during my lesson. We were talking about the skill levels of the many submission wrestlers we know. I said, “Being a black belt is such an accomplishment.” He said, “The practice of Jiu Jitsu starts when you are a black belt.”

If he had said that to me 10 years ago, when I was a white belt, I wouldn’t have understood what he meant. Now I do.

Think about it this way: Of all the people who try to develop a particular skill – like playing golf or making money – only 10 percent become competent at it, and only 1 percent become masters. Only one-tenth of one percent (maybe fewer) become virtuosos. So that’s not even worth shooting for.

Shoot for becoming competent. Competence will give you as much enjoyment as you could wish for from that skill. For instance, becoming a competent French speaker will allow you to get around Paris with ease and be able to follow all but the most complicated conversations.

If you want to go beyond competence and get more extensive benefits from your skill, you must put in the time to achieve mastery.

Once you are a master, you just keep practicing being a master. If you have extraordinary talent, you might become a virtuoso… but that doesn’t matter. You will get no more pleasure from being one.

Most important, don’t discount your potential to succeed just because you don’t have a natural talent or the benefits of wealth or privilege on your side. You can be very successful by achieving mastery. Choose the right skill. Get instruction. Practice well. Put in the time. And stay humble.

[Ed. Note: You can save about 30% of the time it takes to become a master just by hooking up with a mentor. Virtuoso copywriter Bob Bly is going to reveal his best secrets to selling on the Internet to a select few copywriting hopefuls. See if there are still spaces available right here.]

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[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • Michael what you say makes sense.
    I also feel that the examples of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs are too superficial without much depth. Yes, they got special opportunities, but it takes their own special multi-dimensional talents to make any big success out of those special opportunity.

    Thanks for your article.

  • Lynn

    Hi Micheal,
    Just wanted to tell you I enjoyed this article. Actually I ususally enjoy your articles.
    The particular point that I appreciated this time was that you do not need special circumstances to master anything. If that was a truth then I and many others would not have gotten very far in life.
    Tipping Point was a great book Outliers not so much.
    Thanks for writing I really enjoy your thinking. Lynn

  • Sean

    I agree with the concept, but not the detail.
    Yes the difference between a master and a virtuoso is raw, genetic talent. I agree that mastery, for most, is more than enough to be happy and wealthy.

    However, I believe the time to mastery is variable depending on the skill you are trying to acquire and your particular genetic talents. Pro baseball scouts routinely say it takes 100,000 hours of practice to become a major league prospect. And we all know some gifted people who seem to pick up the skills of sport, music or a particular subject twice as fast as us average Joe’s.

    The real benefit of the concept is that, despite the naysayers alredy in the field you are looking at, you can master any field or skill IF you are willing to invest the time and effort.

    Effort is free. What a great ROI!

  • Hii..Micheal thanks for nice share. I think nobody give an opportunity, we have to create opportunities…

  • Valerie

    Gladwell was saying that special circumstances helped to create opportunities for people to become among the best in their field. Bill Gates became one of the best computer programmers because he went to schools that gave him access to computers at a time when few people had such access. Gates took advantage of that opportunity and logged in thousands of hours of computer programming, much more than the vast majority of people even had an opportunity to do. Someone who went to schools that could not afford computers and had no other way to access computers would not have been able to become a master computer programmer. Opportunities matter because it’s the opportunities that determine whether you will be able to practice a given skill for 10,000 hours.