A 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.