Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers has brought about an outpouring of interesting reviews. Some are lucid, some are not so; some are supportive and some are emotional. Some show distrust for the claims he makes.
I wonder why there is such emotional feeling in so many of the reviews I’ve recently come across. The 10,000-hour principle is one particular aspect that seems to be taking a bit of a thump from some reviewers.
Yet the evidence Gladwell provides, and let’s not deny it, the past support for this not-new principle, clearly points to its validity.
It’s true that Gladwell is making some sweeping statements in his book, but his arguments are compelling. It’s also true that if someone goes looking for evidence to refute any of Gladwell’s claims they are sure to find it (Goethe).
Looking for evidence:
As I read through Outliers, I found myself looking for evidence for and against too, and why shouldn’t I? From my own knowledge and experience, most of what Gladwell alleges about expert ability in musicianship alone seems to stack up.
But one has to take care when considering exactly what is meant by an ‘expert’; I will discuss one piece of evidence I found in support of this. Virtuoso violinist, Yehudi Menuhin was undoubtedly an expert on his instrument. I choose Menuhin because Gladwell does not mention him anywhere in Outliers.
A quota of hours:
Menuhin began to play the violin when he was 3 years old. He reached expert status perhaps before the age of 13, and continued to practice, perform and teach in the realm of the expert till near the end of the twentieth century. There was plenty of time between the age of 3 and 13 for Menuhin to have put in his requisite quota of hours to become one of the 10,000-hour experts.
Yet when I looked about for evidence of his inexpertness on the violin, it was not hard to find, even within his mature years as a world-class violinist. I had already recalled an interview I’d seen on TV when Menuhin admitted that the techniques required to play Scottish fiddle music were beyond him. These techniques applied especially to his expertise with the violin bow.
Recently, I’d also found a YouTube video where Menuhin admitted that he could not improvise while playing jazz and swing alongside Stéphane Grappelli - that Grappelli had to write the music for Menuhin to follow so they could perform together.
Yet Menuhin could improvise on his violin, there is no doubt about this. Improvising is part of the classical ‘training’ that all violinists go through sooner or later. He simply could not improvise in jazz and swing music. For as close as jazz music is to classical, the genres are significantly far removed from each other to compromise Menuhin’s expertise.
Clearly, the term ‘expert’, in the context of Outliers, has to be well defined before a cogent discussion can eventuate the pros and cons of the principles involved within the discipline of the expert.
Cooperation, collaboration and the common good:
Let me state here that in no way do I write this as a criticism of Menuhin’s talent as a musician or performer. I have admired his supreme musicianship since I was a child. I also feel that it says a lot for how Menuhin was as a person, that he came clean about his own deficiencies as a violinist. Few expert musicians would be so openly honest about their expertise on their own instrument.
Menuhin was willing to cooperate and work with his fellow expert musicians, in all aspects of their interests, their craft, their various instruments and musical disciplines. This is one message that I took from Outliers, that a successful society has to be built on collaboration for the common good, not just for the privileged or the elite.
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