Persistence needed more than genius

At the recent New Yorker conference, called “2012: Stories from the near Future” was a piece by Malcolm Gladwell on two ideas of Genius. The video link is here—but check the size—it is 27 minutes long.


What is fascinating to me about the speech, is how Gladwell tells the story with his historians ear for detail and uses it as a learning observation on problem solving styles.

Gladwell has a wonderful story telling style, as you will know if you've checked his books (Tipping Point, Blink) or his video presentation on Spaghetti Sauce at TED.

This story is about the differences between work methods used by Michael Ventris in solving the Linear B code from the ancient Mycenean writing in 1953 and Andrew Wiles who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1994.

By way of background, the theorem had been unsolved for 357 years and really most people know little about it and care even less. However it has been a magnificent obsession for mathematicians.

Sidebar: Incidentally, Gladwell quotes Paul Erdos as saying that ‘a mathematician, is a machine for turning coffee into theorems’” in his wonderful essay on the rise of java man. Did you also know that Malcolm Gladwell was a history graduate which could be perfect training for his writing and speeches, and other amazing roles as suggested by Ion Valiskakis in “The Return of History”

Daniel W. Rasmus has elegantly summarised the arguments for and against Gladwells thesis that Ventris represented the “lone genius” while Andrew Wiles had 13 helpers—my paraphrasing. In other words, that modern genius was more about collaboration and focus than the archetype eureka moment. ( Note: Rasmus points out that Ventris had help from Kober and Chadwick so he wasn't entirely isolated in his quest.)

Gladwell worked out that Wiles had done his 10,000 hours and that was very much needed to solve the problem and extrapolated that this might be some kind of rule. It certainly struck me as a usable idea for mastery of a subject and we should think more about this.

Gladwell speculates that:

  1. persistence is more important than genius for modern problems and,
  2. that we need more people who are will to do the 10,000 hours needed to master a subject,
  3. and more of those people need to capitalise on their human potential. 

Gladwell’s rough calculation was that 10,000 hrs equates to ten years—however my calculation is that five years would do it if you were lucky enough to work the equivalent of a standard work week on your specialist subject. So for Gladwell 10,000 hours of time represents some kind of threshold of advanced competency that Wiles was able to achieve.

Rasmus is not so sure and notes that problem solving is only one kind of genius and that:

“Collaboration is right. Obsession is right. So are many other attributes, like pattern recognition, building consensus, creating relationships, and incremental and purposeful innovation …

“Let us not be so narrow in our definition of genius because with change we can not foretell what kind of genius we will need so as we do with learning, pushing toward life long learning, we should be pushing for life long pursuit of insight, because we never know who, or where or what may be needed as the world's values and economics and technologies shift around us.”

He goes on to suggest that:

“Ventris represents the model of the lifelong learner, the person who strives to add value based on their talent despite the lack of interest in formal studies in an area, a lack of aptitude for an approach or technique—but with a keen insight into problem solving that may in fact, be innovative, too innovative perhaps, and too time consuming to be supported in an academic world driven by the productivity of publication.”


Rasmus also notes the rise of the amateur professional as represented in part by Ventris and this is also the topic of a presentation by Charles Leadbeater @TED (see below) This idea of the amateur professional is also supported by Charles Leadbeater in a TED talk called “The rise of the amateur professional” see the 19-minute video on TED.

“Passionate amateurs, using new tools, are creating products and paradigms that companies can’t.” ... and he makes the point that the mountain bike industry came from professional amateurs who reinvented the cycling sector to the point that 65% of it is mountain bike related innovation. (ultimate mtn bike here)

Shawn Callahan of Anecdote suggests: (after checking the genius video)

  1. persistence and collaboration might be more important personal traits than lone genius in a complex and changing world; and
  2. a person needs to invest 10,000 hours of concentrated and reflective practice to achieve mastery—this amounts to about 10 years.

Part of what makes us successful into the future is the way in which we which can foster knowledge sharing, learning and collaboration by using new tools such as blogs, video and other new media tools to connect and leverage our own ideas. In Gladwell’s story of genius, may I suggest that role of collaboration is the key learning point and that is we should look to capitalise on our supreme advantages of education, bandwidth and collaboration tools.

The idea of capitalisation which Gladwell highlights is also very useful. Capitalisation is the concept that all 6'10" tall males—have probably tried out for basketball where they might be a natural; but we don’t do that for other advantages like education, as a rule (at least to the same extent.)

Innovation and change can come from unlikedly sources and often do as Charles Leadbetter suggests and the youthful Eva Vertes hypothesis on cancer show us.

It can also be something much more prosaic and no less vital such as: doing better in the way to we address and service our existing customers and reach out to get new ones where collaboration, feedback and even stories form part of the learning process.

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