There is no doubt that winter has me by the throat. While I do go out (yes, even to take photographs), it’s no secret that I don’t really enjoy it. For me, it’s just not much fun. I suspect it’s not much fun for a lot of other people as well. So when I’m sitting inside with free time on my hands, chances are you’ll find me trying to catch up on a little reading. Currently, I’m reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. If you follow, as I do, other photography blogs on a daily basis, you’ve probably seen or heard other references to this book. Brooks Jensen used a chapter from the book called “The 10,000 – hour Rule” in one of his podcasts. Andreas Manessinger referenced the book and a video featuring Mr. Gladwell in one of his posts here. If you haven’t seen the video, by the way, it’s worth checking out. Both did so because the arguments presented in the book, and in that specific chapter, are relevant to all sorts of human endeavor, including photography.
If you’re not familiar with the “10,000 hour rule”, it goes something like this: If you study the backgrounds of successful individuals, whether they be in business or sports or music or whatever, you’re likely to find a common pattern. You’ll discover that the amount of “practice” that each of these people (or musical groups) put into their chosen career is about 10,000 hours. Gladwell points out that even acknowledged geniuses – like Mozart – had to put in roughly that amount of time before they achieved “success”. Hard work, in other words, is in many ways more important than raw talent.
I don’t disagree with Gladwell’s position on this. His evidence is compelling. However, I also think that some individuals (not the ones I’ve mentioned above, incidentally) are using his arguments as “proof” that raw talent doesn’t matter at all, that so long as you are dedicated enough and are willing to put in the required time, you can achieve any goal you set for yourself. If you want it bad enough, you can do whatever you set out to do.
It’s sort of like telling kids in elementary school (here in the U. S.) that anyone can grow up to be president. All you have to do is dedicate yourself and work hard. If you do that, you can accomplish anything – including becoming president. Well, clearly that’s not true. I don’t care how hard you work at it or “want” it, not everyone can grow up to be president. The circumstances that land you in that office generally have nothing to do with how hard you’ve worked to get there. If you have trouble with that idea, just look closely at the career of number 43.
Gladwell, in my opinion, never discounts the importance of “talent” in being successful. He simply points out that it may not be the determining factor and, in fact, may be less important than a whole range of other factors. Other factors that he mentions include when you were born (both year and month can be important, depending on the activity), where you live, who influenced you, and yes, luck itself.
He never says, by the way, that if you put in the 10,000 hours you’ll for sure be “successful”. He strongly suggests that you’ll be a lot better at whatever it is you’re doing than before you started, but he doesn’t offer it up as a formula for success.
As an example, suppose we have two young kids (perhaps about 8 years old) who both love golf. Both are equally passionate about the game and both are willing to put in whatever effort – and time – is necessary to become the best that they possibly can be. Both receive support and help from their parents, coaches, and friends. As the years pass, both improve. Both put in the “required” 10,000 hours. Are they equally “successful”?
Well, what if one of them is named Tiger Woods and the other one is someone like me (that is, someone who is inherently a really, really bad golfer)? The answer, of course, is that the two kids wind up in entirely different places. One become’s arguably history’s greatest golfer while the other simply becomes a very experienced hack.
The difference between the two outcomes, I submit, is raw talent. Raw talent is the driver, the accelerator, the necessary precondition for success. By itself, it guarantees nothing. In combination with hard work (and a fair amount of good fortune), it’s hard to beat. If raw talent is missing, on the other hand, I don’t think the other elements matter very much. It’s like a nuclear weapon without the enriched uranium. It’s still an explosive device, but a very ordinary one.