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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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Introduction

Ten thousand hours is the level of practice that one is required to undertake in order “to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything”, according to neurologist Daniel Levitin. This idea originated from Ericsson’s 1993 study called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. This study paved the way for an idea of a magical number of hours of practice to become an “Outlier” in your field, dubbed some fifteen years later the “tipping point of greatness” by Malcolm Gladwell. In his book ‘Outliers’, Gladwell presents highly specific case studies of extraordinary individuals and tries to prove that a combination of ten thousand hours of practice, plus circumstance and legacy determines the success of an individual. In this essay I discuss whether his ideas may be true in science.

Ten thousand hours, in science?

Gladwell sensationalises the number ten thousand, but it should be treated as an average, as Ericsson originally recognised it. Einstein’s statement that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so”, somewhat opposes Gladwell’s ideas. Evidence on Nobel Laureates by Jones and Weinberg (2011) show that age-creativity relationship varies more over time than across fields. They explain the aging effect in breakthroughs due to a shift from theoretical work, in which young scientists excel, towards experimental work. The latter is highly dependent on the accumulation of knowledge from extensive experience and reading, which naturally favours older scientists. This gives some basis for Einstein’s statement, whose major breakthroughs were in theoretical physics. In science, a linear relationship of success with time is not observed, which argues against the requirement of ten thousand hours of practice, which assumes ‘mastery’ status is more likely after a longer amount of time.

Collaborations between scientists within a field or interdisciplinary work help to reduce the ten-thousand-hour requirement. In the past, collaborations were unusual as scientists studied an array of subjects. In 1960, the average number of authors on science and engineering articles was approximately 1.9. This is in comparison to the first journal article about the sequencing of the Human Genome Project (2001), which had more than a thousand authors listed. Often it is required to collaborate with other disciplines as their expertise of certain technologies is more useful that taking the time to start from scratch and master them yourself, which would add extra time to the ten-thousand-hour rule.

A classic example of scientific collaboration is the discovery of penicillin in 1928. Although Fleming found the plate with the antibiotic penicillium mould juice growing on, he didn’t know how he would isolate the responsible specimen due to his limited chemistry background. To do this he elicited the help of Foley, an advanced chemist who had great knowledge of the field and excellent laboratory resources. In this situation it is difficult to determine who is the expert, as neither scientist would be successful without the other, and if Fleming tried to succeed on his own it would have taken a much longer time or he might have simply been unsuccessful. By collaborating with Foley, Fleming greatly reduced the number of hours required to achieve isolation of his antibiotic fungus, highlighting how interdisciplinary action can be greatly beneficial to mastering science.

Gladwell is quick to praise the Beatles for their tenacity in their ‘Hamburg Crucible’, but it was their creativity and their diverse abilities in many different genres that gave them musical acclaim, which Ericsson argues in a podcast for Freakonomics. Thomas Cech, the mastermind behind the theory of self-splicing RNA as the origin of life, attributed his success to the combined creativity of his laboratory team. Arguably, the key to gaining scientific acclaim is to explain something novel by means of scientific creativity to link ideas in the literature by inductive reasoning, as argued by Francis Bacon in Novum Organum (1962), then proving it with empirical evidence.  To do this requires deep knowledge of the scientific literature, only obtained by many years of practice and reading within a field.

Not all scientists will achieve mastery in their practicing field, despite “intelligent” IQ levels (115+), in the same way that not all talented bands that played in Hamburg at the same time as the Beatles achieved fame. However, it is likely that it is favourable to have an “outstanding” IQ, as had many scientists ‘outliers’ who had a major impact on science such as Darwin at 160 (paradigm shift from Lamarckism to the Theory of Natural Selection), Einstein at 160 (theory of relativity) and Galileo at 185 (hypothesised the sun was the centre of the solar system). It is unlikely that surpassing ten thousand hours or practice will increase the likelihood of a scientist becoming an Outlier, without a high IQ to start with. Individuals can undergo many hours ‘deliberate practice’ and improve on an established method in science but a shift into ‘purposeful practice’, which Ericsson states as progressing further than previously established methods, is what those with higher IQs are able to do.

Opportunity/luck

It is strongly argued in Outliers that the circumstances, or luck, of certain individuals can attribute to an individual’s success, such as in the chance of Bill Joy choosing to attend the University of Michigan which had the best computing facilities in the world at the time of his attendance. In fact, the discovery of many medicines have been due to chance, such as the previously mentioned discovery of antibiotics. Another is Viagra – this actually started its life as specimen UK92480, a new treatment for angina, before its desirable side effect for treating erectile dysfunction came to light. The scientists working on this drug could be considered to have ‘cheated’ the ten-thousand-hour rule, as they became “experts” by accident. This is in comparison to theoretical scientists who require the time to link ideas and produce creative theories, such as Darwin did as he walked back and forth in his garden.

The discovery of Viagra was innocent, but some controversial practices deliberately try to dodge hours of scientific research. For example, P-hacking is a technique used by some misconducting scientists in an attempt to produce a novel piece of work in a minimal amount of time; by accumulating as much data as possible with the objective to find a random significant correlation. This is not technically fraudulent science, however, it has the potential of leading to fraudulent practices as the desire to expand on something likely insignificant becomes too great. It is questionable if one can be considered an expert in science by this means, particularly if a “discovery” is not ground-breaking.

Many variables factor into “mastery”, making it difficult to define. Fredrick Grinnell explains how the definition of mastery in science is in light of what is known at the time, called the Scientific Truth, in his book ‘Everyday Practice of Science’. Hence, the environment or paradigm in which a scientist is working in can either determine their expert status or be detrimental to it. For example, Darwin was highly under the influence of the Church in his time and, therefore, his theory of natural selection was not widely popular as it contrasted with their teachings of creationism. Nowadays, Darwinism is the standard, showing that the timing at which a scientist may achieve expert status can be more random, rather than pin-pointed to a definite year as Gladwell does with Bill Joy and Bill Gates. New technologies are generating opportunities for new Outliers to shine in modernised areas of science such as genetics. Comparing Gregor Mendel’s investigations of plant genetics using peas in the 1800s to today’s plant biotechnology laboratories is an example of this transition.  

The Effects of Legacy

The comparison between Oppenheimer and Christopher Langan is another tenuous example used by Gladwell that suggests how legacy can help determine a person’s success, but the theory may have some relevance in science. Despite the completion of ten thousand hours, the opportunities available to an individual vary considerably in science. Historically, those within the Catholic Church would have been the individuals who had the advantage and received from the Church money to conduct experiments due to their heavy influence. A more modern example of unequal opportunity draws upon women in science. A study by Ceci and Williams (2011) argues that a woman applicant has to be 2.5 times more productive than a male applicant to receive the same “competence score”, meaning that a female scientist would have to have published 2.5 times as many journal articles as a male scientist in order to be considered at the same level of expertise. This shows how the ten-thousand-hour rule is immediately subjective in consideration of the two genders. Despite this finding, this was found not to affect the granting allocation choices depending on gender, which may help to reduce this difference in the number of hours that one must undertake.

Conclusion

In consideration of these points, ten thousand hours cannot be considered a literal requirement of practice, but significant experience within a scientific field is advantageous, in combination with an ‘intelligent’ IQ. Gladwell is a captivating writer as he builds up his highly specific case studies of extraordinary people, but there is minimal raw data to significantly back up his theory in other disciplines, such as science. It has not been possible to convey many other areas such as the complexity of properly defining one hour of practice in science, the effects of ‘accumulative advantage’ in education, or defining true ‘mastery’ in science, amongst many others, but these are further examples of the complexities associated with this claim. Undergoing extensive deliberate practice and reducing the errors in your work is only beneficial if there is then a transition to purposeful practice; what will ultimately produce something unique in a field that can give a scientist acclamation or ‘mastery’ status.

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