Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest book, Outliers, has some implications for artists. Like his other books, The Tipping Point and Blink, it’s a refreshing pop-culture examination of well-worked subject matter. Outliers is about the phenomenon of success — what impedes it, and what delivers it. It seems a lot of the qualities we think are going to produce success, aren’t.
Raw talent, for example, is far down the list of Gladwell’s succeeding virtues. Being born in the right time and place, to the right parents is more where it’s at. He’s sorry, but he thinks just too many wannabees are disadvantaged from the get-go and don’t really stand a chance. This kind of flies in the face of the self-made-man concept–the guy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps against terrible odds. Gladwell cites all sorts of really bright, well-educated and naturally talented folks who never made it.
Gladwell really gets on track when he suggests that cognitively complex pursuits require ten thousand hours to get good. Drawing on a supply of examples, the rule seems to go for champion chess players, classical music composers, brain surgeons, top hockey players and fine artists. We’re talking fine artists here; those who more or less know what they’re doing.
“Success has to do with deliberate practice,” says Gladwell. “Practice must be focused, determined, and in an environment where there’s feedback.” Further, the penchant for study, reflection, application and hard work is often propelled by obsession. While obsessive behavior may be an antisocial plague to societies and communities at large, it’s total moxie when lone practitioners catch it.
Natural common sense is a big factor too. “You need to have the ability to gracefully navigate the world,” says Gladwell. Apparently you need the ego-force to get what you want. Moreover, no one in any significant profession can do it without the help of others. Even hard-working ten-thousand-hour obsessive-compulsive introverts have to learn to bring agents and enablers into their sphere. For some, this comes naturally, even easily; for others, particularly those in the outlier and self-starting professions, it’s a long and dusty road pocked with trial and error.
PS: “We vary greatly in the natural advantages that we’ve been given. The world’s not fair.” (Malcolm Gladwell)
Esoterica: According to Gladwell, much of what we wish is beyond our control. Some of us are more blessed than others and have opportunities to see things others can’t see. Poverty, particularly at the youth level, is highly restrictive. In education, which is at the root of success, fancy new schools, charismatic principals or new technologies won’t fix things, because the fact is poor kids don’t have the opportunities at home during the school year, and have scanty chances of stimulating summers.
by Madison Mason, New York City, NY, USA
Since I happen to fit into several of those categories, particularly the poor kid slot, your doomy Thanksgiving missive was singularly uninspiring. And if you saw Mr. Gladwell (perhaps Sadwell might be a more fitting name) interviewed recently by Rachel Maddow you’d realize that he’s a totally unimpressive and sissified little nerd who just happened to write a book (and who hasn’t?). Being a successful and personally powerful man myself who’s overcome many of life’s setbacks, I’ll thank you to keep other people’s negative forecasts to yourself, especially on this most spiritual of days. I find your emails encouraging and enlightening and a real plus in this slowly descending culture. I’m surprised that you’d send out something so clearly pessimistic to those who respect you so. And ten thousand hours? At minimum.
There are 7 comments for Uninspiring letter by Madison Mason
Obsession the golden key?
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Excellent letter and exactly what is needed to face the reality. I expect that you will get a lot of whining back because you don’t propose a “solution” — it’s hard to accept that there ain’t one for an average person who is not pre-conditioned to obsession. The solution may be to stop wanting what you can’t have and start wanting what you can. I think that we miss a lot of good stuff in our lives that’s actually within our reach. Being an overachiever might be greatly overrated these days — perhaps that’s a global psychosis as a reaction to the overpopulation? There are millions of active artists just in North America alone. It does take an overachiever to stand against the competition.
When the real work begins
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada
I must say that the news that it takes “ten thousand hours to get good” is a relief. I’m at the tail end of a four-year BFA and I’m feeling a bit of panic about soon being let out of my incubation to fly out into the wide world. It feels like, even after all those gruelling months, I am really only just beginning, and I do think that’s actually the case. From the buzz in the college, I think students generally think the hard part is over once the diploma is in their hands. But I think school is only the starting ground and that if you know that then you don’t expect to be an expert right off the bat. The real work and practice can only begin once an arts education is done and self-discipline and drive kick in. Or not. But I think we should really feel anxious for those folks who get the pre-10,000 hour brain surgeries.
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Salvation in helping the young
by Dave Reid, Canada
Thanks for the letter on Gladwell’s book Outliers. I am currently about halfway through it and realizing it is probable (well, maybe not so sure) that the opportunity for fame and glory has passed me by. I think you could have stated his observation that it takes ten thousand hours to become great/at the top of one’s field/entirely knowledgeable to give your readers a sense of the time and effort needed to accomplish the goal. Even though it seems that most people do what they like and focus on their interest and become a leader as an extension of their interest. It is necessary to help the next generation by encouraging them to spend time at what interests them so they become more than proficient at it.
Who chooses the chosen?
by Jon Conkey, Mora, NM, USA
Malcolm Gladwell has spotted the truth of our system. Reading his views in Outliers, it is not hard to see why our world is mired in troubles; the truly talented have little access to the world, hacks win out by power, favor, location, ignorance, and convenience, while those who possess great knowledge and genius must go to work and spin the Wheel of Fortune. Many times the ignorant are in charge of choosing these folks, while others must enter via the “status quo” channels… like Einstein going on American Idol to get his talent noticed, it isn’t going to happen.
by PJ Piccirillo, Brockport, PA, USA
Your assessment “…the fact is poor kids don’t have the opportunities at home during the school year, and have scanty chances of stimulating summers,” is malarkey. My community’s children’s library sits empty night after night, books un-borrowed, programs un-attended. Our state parks can’t find participants for interpretative, hands-on summer youth programs. Free, community arts connection programs in my town, conducted monthly and funded by grants from my state’s arts council, have never been attended by a person under 30. My son’s Cub Scout den can’t buy members. The opportunities are there for the developing child.
(RG note) Thanks, P.J. I guess Gladwell’s observation is that the parents of poor children don’t always see the value of those wonderful services you mention. “I didn’t need that stuff when I was growing up,” says Dad, “and look how well I turned out.”
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Doing it anyway
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada
Naturally, the first thing I did when I read Gladwell’s 10,000 hours idea was pull out a pencil and start calculating, as if the number of hours I’d spent could be proof that “See, I do so know what I’m doing.” (My calculations were imprecise and easy to skew higher or lower, so it’s safe to say the jury’s still out.) Gladwell’s thinking also reminded me of a very experienced songwriter who said at the beginning of his workshop, “It takes 20 years to learn to write a good song and another 10 years to learn to sell it.” Then he immediately asked everyone how many years they’d been writing, thereby sizing up the skill level in the room. Interestingly, the 3-yearers (1,000 hourers?) didn’t demand their money back and leave. People seem to understand the value of “not” being an expert and doing it anyway, making progress step by step. For more insight, listen to my song, Everyone’s an expert.
Referencing Gladwell’s previous books
by Katherine Tyrrell, UK, UK
This is the second time you’ve had a post about Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and while I’m still only half way through his latest! I’d already decided that I was going to write a post for my blog Making A Mark about Outliers and the notion of “10,000 hours” but I still need to finish the book which I only started this week!
I’ve previously referenced Gladwell’s book, Blink. My post In the blink of an eye (which references your post Grabbing the Heart) attempts to relate his concepts about snap judgments to art and artists through comments on the following examples:
The painting you love before somebody tells you who painted it or how much it’s worth.
The painting which you know is ‘wrong’ even if you don’t know why.
The painting which calls to you from the other side of the gallery as you walk in.
When you are always ‘drawn’ to a painter or a painting — but you really don’t know exactly why you find it so inspirational.
That view which won’t leave your brain as you keep walking around en plein air trying to work out what to do.
The moment you add in something to a painting — without any thought — and it goes ‘zing.’
When you trust your hand to draw what ‘feels’ right.
Immediately knowing what needs doing as soon as you turn around the painting ‘which won’t work’ and which has been turned to the wall.
Immediately acting on an idea for a painting which just springs apparently unprompted into your head.
I’m looking forward to coming up with some similar examples for Outliers!
Life’s not fair
by Toni Ciserella, Marysvale, UT, USA
My parents were hard on us children in that we would be prepared for life (i.e. we weren’t coddled, told we did a great job when we didn’t, or deceived about life’s realities). When we worked hard to win at something only to lose, our parent’s never said, “You should have won” or blamed anyone else for our losing. They gave you 15 minutes on the pity pot and then you went at it again. “Life’s not fair” was their credo.
There are no guarantees. You may have the cards stacked against you. Born at the wrong time. Born to the wrong people. Born in the wrong era. You have but one choice in all of this, as I see it. Keep doing what you love. If you have to work hard at something, whether it makes you wealthy or not, then why worry about the things you can’t control?
There are endless discoveries to come in the study of human psyche. Humans study humans, just like they study the universe around them, and they find that, like stars, some people shine brighter, some are closer to the sun, and yet others burn out, explode, or end up in a glacial state.
The Outliers is a perfect example of our need to know. Our desperate, never-ending, need to know. Of somehow figuring out what the formula is. What planets were lined up at the time of our birth? What moment in time changed the course of our life?
When it’s really all about those 10,000 hours. Those are the hours spent doing what you love. What you obsess about doing.
If, and that’s a big one, you never become an artist in the terms that society currently lays out, but you keep at it even when the odds, stars, era you live in, doesn’t work in your favor, you are a success. Life’s not fair, but who ever told you it was? Get over it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get back to work.
A few more essentials
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
Gladwell may be right that obsession often fuels success — if it doesn’t become self-destructive. I also agree that hard work and engaging the help of others are valuable. On the other hand he seems to have left out a few essentials:
Clarity of vision — knowing exactly what you want to do
Faith that you can and will do it
100 % commitment
Anyone from any background can succeed. It may be easier, especially when higher education is required it helps to have wealthy and supportive parents. However I have seen very talented people loose the edge to knock on doors and do whatever it takes because they came from a too supportive environment. Finally, if I got this right, with eight hour days and weekends, holidays and summer off, 10000 hours is only a little over four years. It takes a lot longer to become a “fine artist’ and anyone who is going to operate on my brain better have a lot more training than that!
A lot left unaddressed
by Susan Baskin
I’m currently reading Outliers. I think Malcolm Gladwell presents too much of an elitist, limiting view of success in the world. I’m not crazy about the book. Practice is definitely valuable, but so is talent, and so are brains — no matter what your upbringing. Also, it doesn’t matter what kind of background you came from, if your brain is unhealthy due to too much drinking, damage from trauma like playing soccer etc., you’re just not going to function as well. It’s obvious to me that what he says is going to be snipped and quoted here and there as it suits the purposes of different types of people — for their own agendas. He does not address the limiting effects of a religious upbringing. There’s a lot he doesn’t address.
A vision that works
by Carla Louise, Brighton, UK
I saw an uplifting BBC documentary a few weeks ago – Imagine: How an Orchestra Saved Venezuela’s Children and thankfully it gives a radical and creative alternative to this Gladwell fellow’s lack of vision and shows that it is possible in even the most disadvantaged of circumstances to change the status quo and increase drastically the potential for world class creative success.
The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, which caused a sensation at last year’s Proms, is the product of an extraordinary music education system that has been running for more than 30 years. Children as young as two get intensive music lessons designed to steer them away from the dangers of the street. With Scotland now trying its own version of the scheme, Alan Yentob investigates the phenomenon and meets its most successful graduate, 27-year-old conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who next year becomes music director of the LA Philharmonic. The fact that this concept has worked in Venezuala and given a wonderful sense of community, purpose, and talent to so many disadvantaged children, shows that things can change and success can be nurtured.
by Russ Henshall, Pulham Market, Norfolk, UK
This letter set me to thinking about you and the methods you use, the painting you obviously do all week and these letters that you write. Robert, just how do you ever find the time to do all this in one week? Not just one letter, but two! Do you ever sleep, or does the research that you must have to do occupy all night as well? So when are you ever able to sleep? Maybe, like Winston Churchill, you have a bed in your studio (war room) and snatch a kip when you can! Please keep up the flow of info – both my wife, my artist daughter and I look forward to hearing from you.
(RG note) Thanks, Russ and Jan. When I’m in the studio, as I am now until the 17th of January, I just keep long hours and pick away at one thing after another. It may appear as some sort of a mental illness, but it works for me. Regarding finding time for the letters, it’s one way I think I can make a contribution, and I’m a bit obsessive about it. I love writing the letters as much as I enjoy painting, and when people write and tell me they had a breakthrough because of one of the letters, it’s the icing on the cake. Fact is, I keep winging back and forth between my two brains, and for those of you who blog about your art, you may know that one feeds on the other. Who needs sleep?
The Sun butts in
collage watermedia painting
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes E. Joan Folinsbee of Thornbury, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Success may partly be due to “being born in the right place,” etc. but it is also a matter of fashion. Many artists are successful, i.e. become known, and able to earn a living from their art, for a year or a decade or more, and then fade away. But they do not stop making art because they cannot. It is ingrained, and still gives them great pleasure in the doing.”
And also Michael J. Morris-Zamora of Bayamon, Singapore, who wrote, “This is one of your most touching letters — mainly through the Esoterica. This is so truthful and so unseen by the ones that should SEE. Some prefer to ignore the crying that comes from underneath to escape from responsibility.”
And also Edith Allison who wrote, “What is an introverted, obsessed artist / spiritual intuitive to do????? Please!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Ten thousand hours…