Friday, July 24, 2009

The 10,000-Hour Rule and the Intransigence of Experts

In his recent book Outliers, sociologist Malcolm Gladwell posits a "10,000-Hour Rule," which sets 10,000 hours as the amount of practice required to master a discipline. As an example, he suggests that the Beatles were so successful because they spent about that amount of time practicing together. Then they got good and got noticed. This put them in the right place at the right time to sweep a market that was looking for a fresh musical sound.

10,000 hours is a tremendous investment, and explains some of the closed-mindedness and intransigence that infects so many areas of expertise. Once a person achieves expertise and starts to get rewarded for it, that person has invested so much time, energy, and emotion in the practice that it could be difficult to admit that one might be wrong on some fundamental points having to do with your field.

One example might be the unwillingness of so many academics to admit any serious discussion of intelligent design ideas.

Another example comes to mind in the field of linguistics. I recently read Merritt Ruhlen's The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. In his book, Ruhlen describes the vehement opposition of mainstream historical linguists to the idea that elements of an original single human language might be extrapolated by examining cognates across many of today's languages.

Because humans now have such short lives, we only have so much time to devote to becoming good at something. So once we achieve a state of expertise, we tend to be so invested in it that we are unwilling to consider alternatives, however reasonable.

AB -- 24 July 2009

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