Mike Kueber's Blog

January 30, 2012

Talented and disciplined

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 2:19 pm
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A couple of years ago I blogged about Malcolm Gladwell’s classic book, Outliers.  In this book on exceptional people, Gladwell wrote about the 10,000-hour rule:

  • The striking thing… couldn’t find any ‘naturals’… who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.  Nor could they find ‘grinds’ who worked harder than everybody else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.  Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.”  Ten thousand hours of effort/practice is what it takes.  However, in addition to 10,000 hours of practice, Outliers often receive unusual opportunities to perform exceptionally beneficial practice.  Furthermore, they may have been born in an opportune time.  E.g., fourteen of the wealthiest persons in history were born in the U.S. between 1831 and 1840, which was perfect timing for perhaps the greatest economic transformation in history.  Being born in the mid-1950s was perfect timing for the computer transformation – Gates (1955), Paul Allen (1953), Steve Ballmer (1956), Jobs (1955), Schmidt (1955), and Jobs (1954).

I thought of this concept recently in the context of some of my successes and failures.  A friend of mine reported that she had attended a couple of country & western two-stepping classes and already had picked up enough to go dancing.  I told her that I have attended at least four eight-class programs and still can’t develop any ability.  And I have experienced a similar, singular lack of success in learning conversational Spanish at adult-education classes.  By contrast, lots of good things have happened in my life because I could do well in academic classes and sports.  My conclusion is that natural ability matters, and a close reading of Gladwell reveals that he agrees – i.e., “once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school….” 

The second part of Gladwell’s equation is discipline, the 10,000 hours of practice.  I thought of that recently when I saw NJ governor Chris Christie rebut the charge that, because he is obese, he apparently lacks the discipline to be president.  According to Christie, he has immense discipline with many aspects of his life, but unfortunately not over his eating habits.

Discipline is generally defined as training to follow a code of conduct, and similes are willpower or self-control.  But I sometimes wonder if a person’s willpower is overrated.  A friend of mine is able to lose weight easily because he doesn’t enjoy eating very much.  “He eats to live; others live to eat.”  I am able to get in good physical shape because I enjoy spending an hour at the gym or on my bike.  Although both of us achieve success, neither of us is applying a lot of willpower.

My conclusion is that Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice may be a sine qua non for becoming an Outlier, but that success does not necessarily reflect an inner quality of discipline, willpower, or self-control.  It doesn’t take discipline to do something that you enjoy doing, like Larry Bird shooting baskets or Chris Christie doing politics.

Nevertheless, these qualities are real, and any parent should hope to instill them in their children.  Child psychologist Kenneth Condrell has suggested the following to instill discipline in children:

  • Rules.  Rules are to children what laws are to adults.
  • Consequences. There must be consequences to your rules. Otherwise, your parenting will be ineffective.
  • Routines. For example, children should have morning and bedtime routines.
  • Responsibilities. Children need to learn to take care of themselves.
  • Expectations. This refers to the standards parents set – for example, no swearing.
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