Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ayn Rand, Malcolm Gladwell, and Mastery

A few weeks ago, one of my student asked about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule wherein mastery of a complex task takes 10,000 hours of work. My reply at the time was that clearly the time dedicated will be variable by individual, but that there must be a difference between learning to play quarter note triplets as well as Ringo Starr and being able to do what Buddy Rich could do. Certainly one could master (a term that is worrisome in its vagueness) given tasks, but the question remained as to whether any amount of effort could make one great at it. This answer contained traces of two seemingly mutually exclusive positions which we'll call the Gladwellian and the Randian views.

Consider the change in the notion of IQ. Originally, the idea was formulated with a very egalitarian presupposition -- everyone could acquire a basic education. IQ was to be a measure of how long one would have to work to get there. A 100 IQ meant it would take an average amount of time, higher meant that the person could acquire the knowledge quicker, lower meant it would be a longer process, but beneath it all was the belief that all humans could be educated to any given degree. This is the Gladwellian view applied to intelligence.

When the idea came to America, it became suffused with a Randian, social Darwinist twist. IQ was seen as a measure of innate intellectual value, of raw mental firepower which some had and others did not. The higher the number the better and we ought to do what we can to make sure those who are more innately gifted get what they need to be great, weaker be damned. (If you've never read Stephen Jay Gould's amazing book The Mismeasure of Man, which traces the history of IQ testing, please pick it up.) This Fountainhead/Bell Curve view, the Randian position, is one in which greatness is not acquired, but innate. It may or may not require development, training, hard work to sharpen and apply effectively, but there is an inherent inequality in human beings that cannot be overcome.

So, is the Gladwellian position or the Randian position correct? Can anyone reach any level of mastery if they just put in enough time and effort? Could Salieri become as great a composer as Mozart with enough time and effort? Are some sorts of tasks Gladwellian, while others Randian? How do we know which are which? Are the two not really mutually exclusive, but complementary? If so, how, given that they seem to conflict?