Back to the fiddle; Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve been busy with work and away from the fiddle for a few weeks. Just now getting back to it, easing in with a couple of mellow but beautiful jigs, Kerfunken (or Kerfunten), which is I’d heard so many times on a Martin Hayes album but never thought to play, and Le Tourment, which I learned from Jeremiah McLane and company. I was in a bookstore a week or two ago and read the first couple chapters of Outliers, a book that proposes that exceptional ability in a given specialized field (like playing fiddle, or programming) is largely a matter of putting in the time practicing – at least 10,000 hours, according to the author. If true, it’s sort of comforting and depressing all at once – comforting because it suggests that sounding like Martin Hayes might be literally within reach, if I dropped everything else and played constantly from now until somewhere around 2015; depressing because given the amount of practice I currently fit in, I’ll be sounding pretty good about the time I die of old age. I wonder about the 10,000 hour thing, though – a working year is about 2000 hours, and there are a lot of people who do the same job for longer than five years. If that’s all there was to it, every engineer over the age of thirty would be a bloody rocket scientist. Maybe engineering is too non-specific to be comparable to, say, playing celtic fiddle, and it could be true that after five years of, say, designing injection molds or doing DOE for drug trials, most people will be pretty darn good. But it’s probably more of an emergent evolutionary phenomenon than a recipe, though – anybody who has put in 5000 hours at some task and still sucks at it will probably be fired, or transferred to a task that matters less if they screw it up.

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2 Responses to “Back to the fiddle; Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. Lee Says:

    I think I read about this book some time ago. Not sure about the concept. While I think that most people can become competent in most tasks with enough effort, aptitude definitely plays a role. Perhaps the 10,000 hours number is effort required to become competent in the absence aptitude?

  2. fiveislandsorchard Says:

    Gladwell cited a study that examined effort vs performance of conservatory students; he claimed that there was a very strong correlation between excellence and practice time – there were effectively no top performers among those who practiced less than average, and no crummy performers among those who practiced the most. That may be most applicable to specialized skills that are at the edge of human ability – like playing the world’s most challenging violin pieces. And there’s some question in my mind whether the phenomenon is effectively prescriptive, or maybe just emergent. Maybe anybody who can get themselves to practice full time for five years really can be exceptionally good, but it may be the case that virtually anybody who lacks inherent talent at whatever skill is under consideration will notice their lack of progress and give up the grueling regimen after a year or two – while those with talent improve rapidly and receive positive feedback that keeps them going the full 5 years.

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