When the world plays telephone with ideas

IMG_0616A few years ago, I was attending a conference with many HR types. My breakout group was chatting about women and advancement. One woman, describing her programs, asked me “Do you know the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?”

I mentioned that I had recently interviewed Sylvia Ann Hewlett. She is the researcher who did the work that popularized this idea — that what people need to advance is a sponsor, a senior person who will advocate for you, banging the table for you in meetings and the like. Mentorship is nice, but there is no capital invested. It tends to be less effective.

The woman blinked when I said Hewlett’s name, as if I had just uttered a total non sequitur.

I wondered in this moment how many people in HR departments were going around talking about Hewlett’s ideas without knowing their origin. And since they were not coming in directly from these white papers, I also wondered how they were getting warped in the process.

I thought of this recently while reading Peak, by Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool. I am reviewing it for City Journal, so this blog post is not about my thoughts on the book. Rather, I was fascinated by his account of being on the receiving end of the Malcolm Gladwell treatment.

Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, can popularize research like no one else. In Outliers, he took Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice and how one becomes a world class expert, and turned it into the “10,000 Hour Rule.” The idea is that becoming a world class expert requires 10,000 hours of practice. That has some relation to the figure from one of Ericsson’s studies of elite violinists, and Gladwell implies that it is the number of hours Bill Gates spent programming before launching Microsoft, and that the Beatles played together before becoming famous.

Except it is not that simple. The violinists did not play 10,000 hours flat. At age 20 or so, the best had averaged something close to that number, but 20 is an arbitrary age, and of course they continued practicing, likely racking up 15,000 or 20,000 or even more hours as they truly became world class soloists. Likewise, we are talking hours of deliberate practice, which is different from performing. The Beatles playing in Hamburg were learning to play well together for sure, but it is probably their songwriting that distinguished them, and that is a different matter entirely.

Ericsson says that Gladwell got some big things right as some things lost their nuance. But the problem is that many people citing Gladwell have gone completely off the deep end. Now people claim that you can do anything for 10,000 hours and become world class. This is not true. According to my time logs, I spent 475 hours this past year doing housework and errands. That is probably not far off my time for the past 10 years or so. That means that in another 11 years, I should be the best homemaker out there!

Um, no. It is about actively training to get better, not just doing.

It reminds me of the children’s game telephone. One person says something, and the next person repeats what she hears. It goes around the circle. By the end, the message is nothing at all like it began. There may be elements, but a lot is lost in translation. Likewise, I imagine it is both frustrating and fascinating to have the world play telephone with your ideas. I am picturing Ericsson being at a party somewhere and mentioning that he does research on the concept of expertise, and somebody else saying “Well, you’ve heard of the 10,000 hour rule, right?”

Photo: Fun fact — my parents owned a rotary when we were growing up. Modern children have no sense that this was once the shape of a phone.

11 thoughts on “When the world plays telephone with ideas

  1. We often hear “Practice makes perfect” but much more accurate is “Practice makes permanent.” You can’t just do something repeatedly and expect to improve. As you say, you have to actively train to get better.

    And younger folks may recognize the phone from the phone icons. (Did you hear about the women who showed her kid a 5″ floppy disk and the kid exclaimed, “Hey you 3D printed the ‘save’ icon!”)

  2. Yeah, I’ve seen the 10,000 hours one garbled quite a bit over the past few years. I like the analogy to “telephone”, not everyone goes to the primary source to write their article or talking point, and along the way little changes/misinformation start to pile up. I think those toys are still ubiquitous enough that my kids can recognize that it is a phone, even though they have no idea how to use it.

    1. @Ana – one of the toy companies re-issued a lot of the vintage toys like the phone. I picked up a few at Target this Christmas – I’m sure it’s more for the parents than the kids : )

  3. This reminds me of a (possibly apocryphal) story I heard in college from an English professor. T.S. Eliot was receiving an honorary doctorate from a university and he sat in on an English class that was discussing The Wasteland. The students and professors were working their way through the poem, discussing allegory and meaning and so on. He finally spoke up to clarify what “the author meant” and one of the students stridently corrected him!

    That must have felt … odd!

  4. Re. the rotary phone… on a related note, my 5 yo daughter can’t BELIEVE that
    1) I didn’t have access to an iPad as a kid
    2) iPads didn’t exist when I was a kid
    2) I could only watch TV shows at the time they were on

    I think a rotary phone might make her head explode!

    1. @Lindsey – the idea of only watching TV at the time it comes on is the one that gives my kids the most trouble. The few times we’ve been in a hotel or rental house and I turn on Disney Jr. and they say something like “we don’t want Little Einsteins, we want Doc McStuffins!” and I explain that the only thing on is what the Disney corporation is showing, they are aghast. Or the idea that we waited a whole year to watch Wizard of Oz when it aired, and you had to go to the bathroom during the commercials.

      1. What about there only being three TV channels, and them not being on air all the time i.e. no morning TV and closedown at 11 p.m.? I know I am showing my age (52) and maybe it was different in the US even then – I am British – but it didn’t seem that bad to us at the time! I certainly got to read loads of books and play outside a lot too, just friends out on our own.

      2. Our kids can’t fathom the concept of the radio either, since we usually just listen to music on demand….they keep wanting to “skip that song” and “play this song”.

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