The Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hour genius certificate

The best explanation for Malcom Gladwell’s (Blink, Tipping Point) success is provided by the Annals of Improbable Research in its Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.

The editors of that esteemed journal posit that “The public loves to see and applaud scientists who have luxuriant flowing hair.” The club originated after researchers wondered after Stephen Pinker’s meteoric rise in scientific circles, whose hair had “long been the object of admiration, and envy, and intense study.”

Everybody can immediately bring to mind that greatest of all 20th century scientists, Einstein, whose hair was wildly out of control, a condition which we thus associate with genius. Compare, for example, the locks of Pinker and Gladwell.

Stephen Pinker Malcom Gladwell

The soundness of the theory is obvious.

Gladwell, who has ridiculously poofy hair, is out with another book, this one statistical in name: Outliers: The Story of Success. I often say there are no such things as outliers; and I say it again here. Outliers are data points that are too extreme to fit your preconceptions. Here, outliers are people who do exceptionally well at certain tasks.

Anyway, one of the main—shocking!—findings of Gladwell’s book is that—wait for it—genius takes hard work! Some people might be gifted but they still need a healthy dose of honest toil before they find their fame. After thinking about this deep truth, I have come up with a new joke, which I preview for you today. Tourist: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Me: “Practice!” Ha ha ha! Feel free to pass it along.

No, I dishonor Gladwell. His real contribution comes in putting a number to the time required to reach genius level, a task which nobody thought to attempt before. It’s 10,000 hours. It works like this. Pick an area in which you would like to excel, like ballet. Then practice for 10,000 hours, after which you will be a genius.

Business people love Gladwell because of his obvious talent for finding deep but elusive truths (like the value of hard work) and phrasing the truths in ways simple to understand. Thus, my prediction is that it won’t be long before companies begin issuing genius certificates for those employees who have amassed the requisite time in areas such as “horizontal segmentation analysis.” Since earning 10,000 hours only requires about five years of normal work, we’ll soon be flooded with “geniuses”, or with people who claim that they are.

This won’t be the first time we see such eccentric behavior from business people. We currently have a healthy surplus of “Six Sigma Black Belts” (a term supposing proficiency with a type of statistical analysis), and hip Apple (Computers) has a ready supply of folks to be “Genius Bar” hosts and hostesses (a nicely hollow—but hip—phrase).

If you want to know more about the book, you can visit Gladwell’s own page, where he asks himself a bunch of questions and then answers them as if he is suspicious of his questioner. His announces that the main goal of this book is “to make us think about the world a little differently.”


(To anticipate a criticism: yes, I am jealous. I wish I got one-tenth of what Gladwell gets for a speech. And, yes, Gladwell also goes on and on about what can be termed “luck”, the component necessary to accompany practice and talent to ensure success.)


  1. Ray

    So, if I practice math for 10,000 hours, I can be another Gauss or Newton? If I had known this in college I would have spent a lot more time on my homework.

  2. Greg2

    I guess I’m a “Genius” at life!!!! I now proclaim myself a “Life Expert”. From now on I am always correct in my ideas about other peoples life…I think I will begin letting them know….

    I will have to ponder my fee schedule…May be I can have a national TV show.

  3. Ari

    Six Sigma “black belt” certification is further proof that the business world is stark raving mad for titles. Really dumb titles.

    Really really dumb titles.

    By the way, I am officially now a “video game genius.” Not that I didn’t know that already. Where’s my prize???

  4. Joy

    How can one be expected to stay on topic when ballet and hairstyles are mentioned? It’s too tempting.
    I might have something intelligent to say later.
    A pure maths professor once described how he had spent an entire weekend thinking over an equation of great complexity. He didn’t have long hair, it was missing somewhat in the middle, and he declared that he had finally solved it. Who cares what it was. I helpfully said,
    “Excellent! Now you’ll be world famous!”
    He said,
    “I already am.”
    The smile was wiped off my face and I didn’t know what to say.

    On practising for excellence:
    Your joke puts me in mind of a conversation overheard between an American tourist and a gardener in an historic garden where the grass was so flat and green as to be unbelievable. The tourist said,
    “How do I get my lawn to look like that?”
    “Get a piece of land,
    And roll it…
    For 500 years!”
    (It made me laugh anyway.)

    You could try stand up! It’s only one step away from what you do already after all!.
    How about the documentary,
    Or a Ballet? Starring Darcey Bussel,
    “The Masquerade Of The Shy Statistician”.
    Such numbers as:
    ‘The Death of Music and Ccombinatrix’
    ‘O’ for a Careau’
    ‘The Black Swan Feather’
    ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’
    ‘The Squirrels and the nutcracker’
    ‘The Hockey Stick Shuffle’ (finale)
    That’s a start,
    When I write to Lord M of B I will put my ideas forward.

  5. Joy

    What is in that Ballet picture? It’s too small to see.
    Does that mean you completed level twenty in Manic Miner? Wow! I only got to level seventeen.

  6. Briggs


    The tall, dofusy looking guy in the back is me. Learning ballet.

  7. Joy

    Dame William m. Briggs:
    It’s a blessing I can’t see it! Was that before or after the ballet lesson at the bar?
    Is this a regular thing? I bet it’s not., and I’m not a bit surprised.

    Here’s Darcey Bussell and Dawn French in my favourite sit-com.
    Check out her fabulous pink dress. Do you have to wear one like this when you perform?
    There’s the usual joke over cocoa in the vestry after the credits; my three favourite female performers in one clip.
    Geeks look away now.

  8. deathsinger

    Mr. Briggs,

    I don’t have a link, but a have read several articles in the past few years indicating that 10,000 hours is the level of effort required for most people to be accomplished at a sport enough to actually get a Div 1A scholarship.

    I think you ascribe too much knowledge to Gladwell.


  9. JH

    “A genius is an outlier or a mere statistical accident,” says Mr. Statistics.

    “It requires 10,000-hour perspiration,” says Mr. Gladwell.

    “… so the accident is not an accident,” says Det. Ham. (click no cheese for exact words.)

    “How long would it take to acquire a certain talent?” asks Ms. JH.

    “It can take up to six days after…,” says Dr. OB/GYN.

  10. Briggs


    I wouldn’t be the first.

  11. Noblesse Oblige

    Briggs // Does it take 10,000 hours to write a silly superficial book professing to yield an elusive but deep truth? Evidently so… if the rate of writing silly, superifical stuff is about 10 words/minute.

    Joy is a joy.

  12. Be honest now, aren’t you just a tad bit jealous of the hairdo? Isn’t that what this is all about? “Fess up, now. You can tell us. We’re your friends and promise not to laugh.

  13. Briggs


    Of all the things I am jealous about, the hair I am not. I can’t stand—I hate—when my hair can be in any way manipulated by any external force. I keep it short.

    This is why I will never be famous.

  14. I’ll second deathsinger’s remarks: I’ve heard many times over the years — at least five years — that 10,000 hours is the necessary number. But for what?

    From (rather vague) memory, the figure came from interviewing lots of people who were tops of their fields — world class musicians, Olympic athletes, the kind of thing where to be successful you have to be at an extreme end of a distribution rather than merely above average. Apparently these people all had at least ten thousand hours of practice.

    If true, then it seems to establish that 10,000 hours is probably a necessary condition for success, but by no means a sufficient condition.

  15. Once I was invited to lunch at the Cal Tech Faculty Club. In case you have never been there, the CTFC has a large dining room with exquisite cherry-panelled walls. The waiters wear uniforms, including white chef hats, and serve roast beef and vichyssoise. The tables all have white linen table cloths, and the silverware is real silver.

    But most interesting was the clientele, the Cal Tech Faculty, who all sport Einstein hair. You would think that with all the opulence, they would get regular haircuts out of respect and tastefulness, and I suppose they certainly could afford to. But puffy hair makes your head look bigger, and big heads were in style then and there.

    The key to genius is to look like one, I’m afraid. Symbolism trumps substance in the cause celebre subjective. Leather elbow pads are also genius de rigeur, as is the peppering of prose with French. Hard work is outre, mon ami.

  16. bgc

    So Gladwell is arguing that success requires talent, application and luck. A bit of a surprise, but at least I don’t have to worry about reading this one. It’s been a while since I read Blink, but as I recall it boiled down to something along the lines of “experienced people in a field have got experience which allows them to easily see things that inexperienced people don’t see because the inexperienced people haven’t got experience”, which didn’t exactly come as a complete surprise either. It must be nice to be able to make lots of money writing such stuff.

    BTW what is this “six sigma stuff”? Is it the complete tosh I’ve always assumed it to be?

  17. Joy

    Noblesse Oblige:
    Alas, I am one “h” short of a PhD I’ve got the P and the D but not in the right order. I do, however, have long flowing hair that, with any luck, is manipulated by external forces.
    One way to be sure that this occurs is to stand at the end of the tube train with my back to the open window between the two carriages. The wind from the tunnel sucks one’s hair backward with amazing force. It is one of life’s pleasures, reserved for boring and packed train journeys.

    I can’t believe anyone takes that man seriously, he looks like he plugged himself into the ring main.
    Apparently, in London, the latest men’s style is “Bed hair”. That’s what they tell their bosses anyway.

    Just remembered as well I passed a lanky teenager the other day with hair that made his head look like it was on backwards, no joke, he looked like he had a very strong breeze blowing from behind. I guess they’ve tried the sleeked back and the straight up look, it was the only direction left to go.
    I swear David Beckham changes his hair for a joke to see how many lads will copy him. It doesn’t improve their football, why does Gladstone think it’ll help his fortune?

  18. Ari


    Does that mean you completed level twenty in Manic Miner? Wow! I only got to level seventeen.

    Alas, I have never gotten that far. I have, however, beaten at least a few of the so-called “hardest” video games in history.

    Apparently, in London, the latest men’s style is “Bed hair”. That’s what they tell their bosses anyway.

    I’m lucky enough to have a Jewfro that I very very actively trim down to almost nothing. No “product” needed! No worrying about whether it’s “in style.” On the flip side, on those rare occasions that I go to a synagogue (basically for Yom Kippur and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs), it’s really hard to keep the yarmulke on my head.


    But most interesting was the clientele, the Cal Tech Faculty, who all sport Einstein hair. You would think that with all the opulence, they would get regular haircuts out of respect and tastefulness, and I suppose they certainly could afford to. But puffy hair makes your head look bigger, and big heads were in style then and there.

    I had at least three professors at UCLA with poofy hair, and at least two “professor ponytails.” There was also a brief outbreak of ponytails when I was at UCSD for grad school. One prof managed to combine poof with ponytail. It was kind of frightening. I’m glad that I have a full head of Jewfro hair that will forever preclude me from such silly styles.

  19. Bernie

    I had hair like that depicted when I was an undergraduate. It wasn’t anything to do with either conscious image building or a lack of consciousness about image due to genius level pre-occupations – I was too cheap to get it cut! Cutting it yourself is too dangerous and I never had a girlfriend who liked to cut hair. My wife refuses – since she thinks I am being cheap. Since I still have most of my hair, I frequent Rocco’s, a very good local barber shop, every eight weeks or so. My hair costs me about $2.00 per week. See, somethings never change.

  20. Steven


    Not a fan of six sigma?

    Pray tell, why not?


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