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Forget the 10,000-hour rule, consider the 10-hour rule

With the rise of the robots, maybe we should abandon the notion of spending tens of thousands of hours at becoming super-achievers at one thing. Instead, we should become versatile dabblers to best complement the advances in artificial intelligence.

Sport is becoming ever more competitive. Johnny Hayes, who won the Gold medal in the Boston marathon in 1908 at a relatively leisurely pace, wouldn’t even have qualified for today’s marathon, with 30,000 competitors. (At the first Boston event in 1897, only 18 participated.) In 1974, Johan Cruyff, the legendary Dutch football player, smoked a cigarette during a break in the World Cup final. George Best had so much restlessness to spare after becoming the world’s best footballer he decided to become the world’s best boozer as well. That too was in the Seventies.

Today, people like tennis champion Serena Williams are trained to within a millimetre of technical perfection. No smoking breaks for them. Instead, the coaches of today’s superstars make sure that absolutely nothing is left to chance and that nothing is lost to carelessness – the margins are that narrow between winning and losing. But is it all worth it? A slew of books has come out in the last few years, on sports psychology and utilisation of one’s talents generally (be it programming or playing the piano.) The good – or at least democratic – news is the supreme importance of effort for high achievement.

10,000 hours of concentrated practice on your field is one estimate, according to the book ‘Outliers’ by the popular science writer Malcolm Gladwell, who channels the research of respected psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has done decades of work on the nuts and bolts of high achievement. That figure, ‘10,000 hours’, has become a popular meme.  

Gladwell wrote recently: “The ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery.”

Inspiration apparently means less than perspiration. By all means, God-given genes – but effort matters hugely.

 The bad news is that that is an awful lot of hours. People who reach for the brilliance zone have to have a steel will and a willingness to sacrifice a lot of what others would term a normal life of leisure, family and enjoyment of the little things. On top of that, there is a kind of Darwinism at work here: as the peaks of perfection are pushed ever higher, you have to work ever harder to reach that achievement frontier.

The jolly amateurism of the early Olympic Games is now… history.

But what if you narrowly miss the top, after all that effort? That happens. The outsize rewards that the absolutely best performers in sports and other endeavours enjoy is one of the consequences of globalisation. The top athlete, business executive or music artist wins a lot more fame and money than those at the skill level immediately below. I suppose the reason is partly this. In the world of cheap aviation and the internet, ability travels easily, so there are fewer locational advantages, fewer opportunities for the good-but-not top achiever to be profitably dominant in his own exclusive geographical niche. The best consultants in a given business field are just a Skype call away. So why not just use his expertise? To the top athlete go the marketing deals; the 29,999 Boston marathon runners who beat the running time for the 26-mile race of the 1908 Olympics winner…well, they just get a pat on the back.

All this presents a dilemma for the ambitious parent of children, or the young person who wants to make it in today’s climate: do you go for it, put in the 10,000 hours to excel at something – more like 20,000 hours?  But if you do that, the cost to your normal life is guaranteed to be high, but it is still a bit of a gamble, as high rewards are not guaranteed.

And then you have another part of the modern equation: robots, the destabilising force of automation which is devastating the West’s working class, which led directly to the rise of Trump. And we have only seen the start of it: Surgery, financial analysis and other white-collar, high-skill professions are sure to become automated one day.  

Martin Ford, author of the 2015 book called ‘Rise of the Robots’, says: “More education and skills will not necessarily offer effective protection against job automation in the future. As an example, consider radiologists, medical doctors who specialize in the interpretation of medical images. Radiologists require a tremendous amount of training, typically a minimum of thirteen years beyond high school. Yet, computers are rapidly getting better at analyzing images. It’s quite easy to imagine that someday, in the not too distant future, radiology will be a job performed almost exclusively by machines.”

According to a study by Carl Frey at Oxford University, occupations amounting to nearly half of US total employment may be vulnerable to automation within the next two decades. The figure is surely similar for Europe. I believe that deep inside the minds of many students today is the fear that, on graduation, they will be stuck with big loans but end up joining the ‘precariat’, working in low-paid jobs below the expectations university prepared them for. Ford quotes statistics showing how half of new graduates are unable to find jobs that utilise their education and find the step onto that crucial first rung of the career ladder. Incomes for graduates with bachelor’s degrees declined by 15 per cent between 2000 and 2010, writes Ford.

So, unhappy graduates go and become social justice warriors instead, who will maybe go looking for machines to smash (metaphorically speaking) after they have destroyed the ‘patriarchy’. Or, in some cases, go all out for the 10,000 hours race, boom or bust, to become very good at, well, if not sports, maybe programming. But we have to think ahead, even there.

Just how many jobs are there in technology, anyway? Certainly not enough to employ the multitudes. Whatsapp, when bought for a sum of $19bn in 2014, had just 55 employees. Facebook’s data servers, mostly managed by Cyborg, a software program, require just one human technician for every 20,000 computers. And what happens when computers create algorithms that enable them to start programming themselves?

It requires much more thought than can be packed into just one magazine column.  But may I suggest one profitable direction of thought. Maybe the solution is to refuse to join the race and, instead of vainly developing our inner robot, think about developing our inner human being. The generalist individual, who can pluck insights from many fields, is less vulnerable to redundancy imposed by the peculiar kind of systematising intelligence of robots. Let us become members of the ten-hour club rather than the 10,000-hour club. Become a nation of happy amateurs, who combine insights in a creative way from dabbling in many different fields.

The generalists are the people who are going to be able to profitably coexist with robots in an ever more automated world. In other words, but for the very devoted few, the ten thousand hour game is the wrong way to go about it. Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov was being beaten by chess computers as long as 20 years ago – and he had spent many tens of thousands of hours learning chess.

Let us run a different race. As the superman is being superseded by technology, let us do what computers can’t do, become jacks of all trades. Or, to borrow Isaiah Berlin’s idea, become not hedgehogs, who know one big thing, but foxes who know many small things, and bring them together in profitable ways. Just a thought.

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