Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

10,000 hours and The Coming Online Talent Explosion

About half way through Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success and, if he’s thesis and the research it is based on is valid, I think we are in for some exciting times in the online writing world.

Gladwell talks about how it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in area, subject or practice. Referencing a study of musicians that sought to determine how many “natural” talents their were, Gladwell notes that:

“The curious thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals” – musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. What’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”(H/T Tim Finin)

How much harder?

“In those first few years everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But around the age of 8 real difference started to emerge. the sudtents who would end up as the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else. 6 hours a week by age 9, 8 hours a week by age 12, 16 hours a week by age fourteen and up and up until by the age of 20, they were practicing – that is purposefully, and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better – well over 30 hours a week. In fact by the age of 20 the elite performers had totalled 10,000 hours  of practice over the course of their lives, by contrast the merely good students had totaled 8000 hours and the future music teachers had totaled just over 400 hours. “

He then cites example after example of this trend. 10,000 hours – usually attained only after about 10 years – is a magic number.

Well, two years ago my friend Taylor and I wrote this piece about the 10th anniversary of blogging. Since the blogosphere is only about 12 years old there are not that many people who’ve been blogging for 10 years – moreover, the scant few who have are most likely to be those who work, or and deeply interested, in Information Technology. If Gladwell is correct it means that virtually all bloggers  (self-included, only 3.5 years) and especially those without an IT background, are likely well short of the 10,000 hour mastery threshold.

This is exciting news. It means that despite the already huge number of great blogs and bloggers we are probably only experiencing a fraction of what is to come. Given bloggings exponential growth I’d wager that the world is about 2-5 years away from an explosion in writing talent. Today all sorts of people who would never have previously written are writing blogs. Many are terrible, some are good, and fewer still are excellent. But what is important is that they are gaining experience and learning. With more people reaching that 10,000 hour mark, more talented people will also reach it – consequently, we should see more gifted writers. Better still, it is possible their talent will be restricted to blogs – but perhaps not. As these writers get more recognized some they will shift to books, or magazines or whatever new medium exists by then.

All in all, the first half of the 21st century could be one of the greatest for writers – and as a result, for readers from thereafter too. The internet’s writing renaissance could be upon us soon.

The Dunbar number in open source

For those interested in open-source systems (everything from public policy to software) should listen to Christopher Allen’s talk (his blog here) on the Dunbar Number.

Dunbar’s number, which is 150, represents a theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person.

Malcolm Gladwell brought the Dunbar number into popular discourse when he referenced it in his book The Tipping Point.

However, Allen’s talk tries to nuance the debate. Specifically, he wishes that those who reference the Dunbar number would be more aware that in he research literature, the mean group size of 150 only applies to groups with high incentives to stay together. As examples he cites nomadic tribes, armies, terrorist organizations, mafias, etc… in short, groups in which mutual trust and strong relationships are essential for survival. This is in part due to the fact that there is a cost group members must pay to maintaining this groups of this size: one must spend 40% of ones time engaged in “social grooming.” This means sitting around listening to one another, talking, being engaged, etc… Without this social grooming it is difficult to develop and maintain the unstructured trust that holds the group together.

More interestingly Allen’s research suggests that in modern groups there is a correlation between group satisfaction and the size of the group. Things work well between 3-12 people and from 25-80. But in between there is this hole. Groups in this “chasm” are too be too big to use many of the tools (like meetings) that small groups can use, but too small to successfully rely on the tools (such as hierarchies and reporting mechanisms) that allow larger groups to function.

Open source projects (and really any new project) should find this interesting. There is a group size chasm that must, at some point, be crossed. When I’m less tired I will try to wander over to sourceforge and see if I can plot the size of the projects there to see if they scale up nicely against Allen’s graph.

In addition, I’m curious as to whether some softer skills around facilitation would allow groups to function more effectively, even within this “chasm.”