In the past few years several writers looking at creativity have relied on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, finding that mastery of just about any discipline requires ten thousand hours of “deliberate practice”—working on technique, seeking feedback, and addressing weaknesses. Problem is, mastery is not creativity.
A few of the disciplines that have been extensively studied to make this determination are music, painting, poetry, tennis, and chess. It should be obvious that masters of a discipline get and maintain their mastery through practice, but there is perhaps some usefulness to these studies, as they can both confirm and discredit our assumptions. For example, these studies show that dedicated practice that pushes boundaries and leads to mistakes that have to be worked through is highly productive, while practice that endlessly repeats material already mastered is of little benefit.
Besides in Ericsson’s own work, you can find references to the 10,000 hours thing in several books, including Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David Shenk’s, The Genius in All of Us. Gladwell claims that what differentiated the Beatles from other rock groups was their ten thousand hours of performing in Hamburg, Germany, and that Mozart’s work when he was young was unexceptional; he did not excel until he had put in ten thousand hours. But this just does not sound right. It may indeed have taken Mozart and the Beatles ten thousand hours to acquire their mastery, but it was not just mastery that made their music great rather than just accomplished. When Mozart’s rival, Antonio Salieri, reached 10,000 hours, his work did not then equal Mozart’s in luminous insight. And Elvis Presley did not put in 10,000 hours before doing his best work, the Sun Recordings. Mozart’s and the Beatles’ practice helped them convey their insights. The more interesting questions are what were these insights and how did they achieve them? That’s “creativity,” something apparently outside the comprehension of a lot of social “scientists.”
In Outliers Gladwell looks at exceptional people, but mostly attempts to debunk exceptionalism. One of his portraits is of a girl who attended a special inner city school that required long hours and lots of homework. After graduation, the girl got a good job as a bookkeeper. A laudable achievement, but it does not, as Gladwell implies, make her a mathematician.
Gladwell could have told the story of George Bernard Dantzig. In 1939 Dantzig, a graduate student at Berkeley, arrived late to a class in statistics and quickly copied down two problems from the blackboard that he thought were the homework assignment. The problems seemed harder than usual, and he struggled with them for a few days, but was finally able to solve them and turn in his by-then-overdue “homework.” A few weeks later his professor visited him to inform him that he had solved two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistical mathematics. Dantzig went on to make important contributions to linear programming. Try to assign seventy people to seventy jobs. The number of possible combinations is larger than the number of particles in the universe, and no computer can find a solution by brute force. But with Dantzig’s simplex algorithm (an algorithm is a systematic approach to a problem that proceeds through a series of proscribed steps), regarded as one of the top ten algorithms of the twentieth century, such problems, which are fundamental to the distributions of just about all goods and services, are now solvable.
Gladwell’s bookkeeper achieved mastery, but did not engage in creativity. Neither Gladwell’s Outliers nor Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us tell any stories like this. Such stories do not support their contention that we can all be outliers or geniuses.
Mastery is not creativity.