Godin vs. Gladwell: Fight!


In Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, he uses a metric of 10,000 hours of effort as a measure of time it takes for someone to master their chosen profession or vocation. This translates from between 5 and 10 years depending on the amount of time spent per year. e.g. 40 hours per week = 2000 hours per year (roughly).

Gladwell gives numerous examples to support his theory, including chess grandmasters, world class athletes, classical musicians, medical specialists etc. A good blog entry on this is available here.

There’s also great video of Gladwell giving a talk on his book that can be found here.

But, in a recent post, Seth Godin takes Gladwell to task on this 10,00o hour rule.

For me, though, some of the 10k analysis doesn’t hold up. The Doors (or Devo or the Bee Gees) for example, didn’t play together for 10,000 hours before they invented a new kind of rock*. If the Doors had encountered significantly more competition for their brand of music, it’s not clear that they could have gotten away with succeeding as quickly as they did. Hey, Miley Cyrus wasn’t even 10,000 hours awake before she became a hit.

Doc Searls and Scoble didn’t blog for 10,000 hours before they became the best, most important bloggers in the world. Molly Katzen didn’t work on her recipes for 10,000 hours before she wrote the Moosewood Cookbook either.

Personally, I find Godin’s logic faulty and somewhat inane. First Gladwell wasn’t defining a hard and fast law of success, but an empirical observation that was generally true in many cases. It referred to mastery of complex or difficult vocations.

Miley Cyrus? Devo? Gimme a break.

From a personal perspective, I think Gladwell may be onto something. Looking at my own career, it took me quite a number of years before I could honestly say I became a really good Product Manager. (patting myself on the back!)

I became a PM, like virtually every other PM, after spending years in other jobs. Even though I’d worked in the software industry for a number of years, I had exactly 0 hours of prior PM work experience and about 20 hours of PM education (yes I took a popular PM class) when I became a PM. In short, I was starting from scratch.

And it wasn’t until I was a PM for 4 or 5 years, that I can honestly say I really knew what I was doing. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, none too huge thankfully, but also gained a lot of insight in that time.

Now, with over 10 years in the trenches, and significantly more than 10,000 hours under my belt, I’m pretty confident in my PM skills.

What do you think? Is Gladwell onto something with the 10,000 hour metric?



13 responses to “Godin vs. Gladwell: Fight!

  1. I would say it is a heuristic ( a fallible method of solving a problem or a thumb rule that works most of the time , yet it is fallible.

    While Gladwell can support his theory with examples that prove them, I sure, in the true spirit of competition, there will be other who will pick some examples ( “outliners” – ironically”) to disprove the theory.

    Use the theory for whatever it is worth for ….

    Shrini Kulkarni

  2. I tend to agree with Mr Gladwell.

    I never understood the idea of changing job/function every 2 years as is the custom for high profiles in many large US corporations …

  3. If it was just 10k (without the units),there wouldnt be an argument.
    But yes, for majority of cases, time is required.
    Doors etc aren’t like most people. And who’s Miley Cyrus btw? 😉

  4. Saeed you are the purple cow of Product Management!

    I agree with you on the point that 10,000 hours is not required to master their chosen profession or vocation, but I think it is worth noting as well that 10,000 hours does not make you a master either.

  5. Dear Seth Godin,

    We beat you up because we love you.

    On Product Management Staff

  6. Ryan Thiessen

    I think being sucessful and being a master are two very different things.
    You can get lucky, or be in the right place at the right time and be sucessful, duplicating that sucess takes more of a master of their art.

    If we are looking at the music industry, Miley Cyrus is successful, but by so mean a masterful singer or preformer and if she tried to recreate the success of Hanna Montana with a new show would probably fail. Same with the Door many of them tried to go solo or start a new band with out the same success.

    How many PM have had a product be successful just to fail with the next attempt, and how many Master PMs have walked into a failing product to turn it around. Big difference betwen the two.

  7. An artist can produce immediately through inspiration – but it takes time to understand the foundations of that inspiration. In other words, I think it’s possible to create greatness ex nihilo (out of nothing), but hard to do it consistently.

    Inspiration + understanding + transmission = mastery. Ultimately the Apprentice/Journeyman/Master process will take as long as it takes, whether that is 10 hours or 20,000 hours. And you won’t know you’re there until you’re there.

    The bottom line is that mastery isn’t free, and it is not a journey that can be reproduced consistently from individual to individual.

  8. I see no contradiction here. Gladwell claims – through his research – that it takes 10K hours to master a skill. Godin claims that a few people have distinguished themselves with much less than 10K hours. Sure, we could get into a discussion of average case versus exceptions, but there’s more to it. Many of Godin’s examples are not individuals, but rather the public faces of a particular project. For example, there are many talented singers, but it takes a combination of talent and marketing to be a rockstar. And Godin frequently writes about standing out from the crowd, so to speak.

    Then again, we can view this through another lens: both Gladwell and Godin are writing to get buzz and get people talking. Regardless of where you stand on this question, it’s clear that both authors got your attention.

  9. Stewart,

    In any other context, being called a purple cow would be a definite insult.



  10. Saeed, are you and Godin talking about the same thing?

    You’re saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master a profession. Godin seems to be talking about becoming famous for it.

  11. Richard,

    I’m citing Gladwell’s assertion about the 10,000 hour requirement. Godin is disagreeing with Gladwell and citing Miley Cyrus and Devo. He’s confusing mastery with fame.


  12. A good blog entry on this is available here.

    Thanks for the compliment. As always Gladwell is about the story and strict analogies do not really apply. I’d say Seth was doing a bit of link baiting but raising the questions is always fine although my feeling is that he is being a bit obtuse here.

    The core idea was of that of a competency cycle and what it might take. Using the word rule is always going to distract people from the core idea which is sound. BTW my post on the topic was based on the New Yorker video and was posted in July 2007 which predates the recent Gladwell book by quite some time.

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