I'm not usually a great fan of Gladwell's books, but tonight I happened upon this excerpt from his latest book, which asks the question of whether there is any such thing as a genius. It's a fascinating read, and dovetails with a number of other conversations and philosophical ideas I've been preoccupied with lately. One of his points, and the one I found most interesting, is that success--the success of a great hockey player, a programming elite like Bill Joy or Bill Gates, or a virtuoso violinist--is very much a function of time spent practicing:
If you put together the stories of hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates, I think we get a more complete picture of the path to success. Joy, Gates and the Beatles are all undeniably talented. Lennon and McCartney had a musical gift, of the sort that comes along once in a generation, and Joy, let us not forget, had a mind so quick that he could make up a complicated algorithm on the fly that left his professors in awe. A good part of that "talent", however, was something other than an innate aptitude for music or maths. It was desire. The Beatles were willing to play for eight hours straight, seven days a week. Joy was willing to stay up all night programming. In either case, most of us would have gone home to bed. In other words, a key part of what it means to be talented is being able to practise for hours and hours - to the point where it is really hard to know where "natural ability" stops and the simple willingness to work hard begins.
He goes so far as to give the length of time it takes:
This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.
Earlier today I had a conversation that repeats in my professional life a lot. One of my students pinged me on irc to say that he was 10 hours into trying to solve a hard problem, and needed some advice. My advice in these cases is usually the same, and often has little to do with computers: I told him to keep going. He did, and two hours later he was back with the working code. Despite how he feels tonight, having gotten it done, and submitted the work, the code is almost irrelevant. Ten years from now he won't remember the program at all. What's most important here is that there's only 9,988 hours left, probably a lot less.