Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Economics: Generalists in Gladwell's World

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I happened to catch a repeat of an interview with the author Malcolm Gladwell recently, talking about his book "Outliers". Amongst a variety of interesting theses in this book is the idea that about 10,000 hours of work is required for greatness in essentially any topic. Bill Gates may be an exceptional human being, but he spent 10,000 hours programming before Microsoft became a success. Michael Jordan may have been an extraordinary athlete, but he didn't win a NBA title until he had played basketball for 10,000 hours. As Gladwell has it, even Paul Harvey probably wasn't a great broadcaster until he had been on the air for 10,000 hours.

The 10,000 hours figure seems to ring true in academic circles. It amounts to something less than five years of full-time work, which is just about the time that is generally required to earn a PhD, the standard marker for becoming an expert in a field. Yet, not everyone with a PhD would claim greatness--the 10,000 hours seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for greatness.

At some level, that's comforting for those of us that really don't want to spend 10,000 hours on anything. Some of us know it would be downright unhealthy for us--focusing on the details of something for 10,000 hours could lead to serious mental issues that would at best be difficult to get beyond. If there's no guarantee of such a commitment leading to greatness anyway, then we have our excuse for not devoting such an extended effort on any one thing. The "generalist" might be the exact person who can't achieve greatness anyway.

So that leads to the age-old question--if only a small number have both the talent and the 10,000 hours to devote to becoming great, what becomes of the rest of us? That seems to be a function of the overall society. In a country with relatively even income distribution, then one might be within in a middle class and living an acceptable life. In a country with larger income inequality, then the non-great are more likely to end up poor no matter what they do, and might not have such a great existence.

Such a conclusion seems to mesh with Gladwell's perspective. In part of the rest of "Outliers," he points out ways in which chance and opportunity have more to do with creating the great amongst us than raw talent--things like sports players statistically being more likely to be born in certain times of the year, and people being the right age during transformations in the economy. This kind of argument tends to lend more sympathy to those of us that do not achieve greatness for whatever reason. Maybe we could have been contenders if we had just been born at a different time--and maybe those that do become great have a certain responsibility to the society that gave them the opportunities that they seized. What starts as a conservative argument about hard work morphs into a pretty liberal perspective.

In this era of pragmatic figures like Barack Obama, such perspectives with elements of conservatism and liberalism like Gladwell's may gain more traction. The truth often lies at the intersection of competing beliefs.

As for blogging, I guess I still have about 9,800 hours to go to achieve greatness, and I might get there in a quarter-century. Somehow I'm not expecting that to happen.

No comments: