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Huffington Post: The Flaw in Malcom Gladwell’s ‘Ten Thousand Hour’ Rule

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 3.57.50 PMNot everything works that you try, in business, in love, in sports. Here’s an example: Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book called Outliers, expounds an interesting doctrine which most people now call the “ten thousand hour” rule. With apologies for short circuiting it, the idea is that to get really good at something, you have to spend a lot of time working on the particular skill or knowledge set that’s involved, and the minimum time required is ten thousand hours. I believe there is much truth to that. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but the opposite is by and large true. But there’s a big footnote to that theory.

When I was in high school I wanted more than anything in the world to make the varsity basketball team. I was a slow, short white kid who couldn’t jump or shoot foul shots. Or really any shots except an underhand lay-up with my right hand. I am now a slow short white adult who can’t jump. Not sure about the shooting, I doubt that it is has improved.

But every day after school, I went down to the playground near my house in northern Alexandria, and I practiced dribbling and shooting and jumping, either by myself or in pickup games with other kids, until it go so dark that you really could barely see the white backboard. I got my parents to buy me a really nice basketball, so that I could at least get chosen on one of the teams. Basketballs were in short supply, and I mastered this important supply/demand equation early. Then, because I was even more fanatic than this sounds, I bought a regulation white cord net for the basketball rim. Since this was a public school playground, there were never any nets. And as everyone knows, there is nothing quite so delightful as shooting the ball and having it go into the basket without touching anything. Swish! I made shots like that at least once a week.

Every day I walked down to the playground with my ball and my net. I climbed up the pole and, hanging by one had from the rim, installed the net. I practiced for hours. Once it got dark, I climbed up the pole again and took down the net. I walked home and had dinner and did my homework and went to bed. I have done the math and including junior high school and high school I am categorically certain that I spent Malcolm’s ten thousand hours on the concrete courts at Murray Elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia.

I went out for the high school basketball team three times. I was cut at the end of the first day of practice three times. The Celtics did not send people out to scout me. I was not offered an NBA contract. It now occurs to me that Gladwell left out something important in his equation. Yes, you have to work hard and practice and be dedicated. You have to be not disheartened at an early lack of success. You have to be optimistic. But you also have to have talent at what you’re working so hard on. Doesn’t say much for my self-appraisal or capability for introspection that it took me so long to figure this out, but there you are. And the marvelous part is that I still like basketball, but I play tennis. Against old slow white guys like me.

RF Hemphill is a former CEO of a multi-billion dollar global electric power and distribution company and is the author of Dust Tea, Dingoes & Dragons: Adventures in Culture, Cuisine & Commerce from a Globe-Trekking Executive.

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