Thursday, August 19, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: Implications for Shakespeare Biographers by Daryl Pinksen

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, the author argues that top-level mastery of any discipline cannot be achieved without sustained and concerted effort, usually from an early age, until something like ten thousand hours of focused practice have been logged. Gladwell’s goal is to expose as Romantic delusion the notion that “outliers,” his word for individuals who achieve world-class mastery, are the outcome of geniuses inevitably rising to the top—often in spite of their environment. In Outliers, Gladwell marshals a chorus of evidence to make his case.

The defining example Gladwell presents is a longitudinal study which tracked violin students in Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. All of the students had begun the violin around age five, and all had evidenced exceptional skill; this was their ticket into the academy. The study asked the students about practice habits, and followed the students into their professional lives. What the researchers found was stunning. For the first few years, when all students were practicing at roughly equal intensity, there was little difference in their ability, but as time went on, the proficiency gap began to widen, and there was only one factor that correlated with proficiency—practice time. Here is an excerpt from Outliers discussing the ramifications of the study’s findings:
By the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totalled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totalled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totalled just over four thousand hours.

Ericsson and his colleagues then compared amateur pianists with professional pianists. The same pattern emerged. The amateurs never practiced more than about three hours a week over the course of their childhood, and by the age of twenty they had totalled two thousand hours of practice. The professionals, on the other hand, steadily increased their practice time every year, until by the age of twenty they, like the violinists, had reached ten thousand hours.
The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.1
One can see how such findings might be important for Shakespeare’s biographers, for the story of Shakespeare’s rise from rural glover’s son to the greatest writer in English history is frequently held up as an example of “genius”—nature—triumphing over environment. Shakespeare was a “natural” poet, who picked things up as he went along, absorbed what he could from books when he had the chance. His genius was so profound that his rise to poetic excellence was virtually pre-ordained at birth. This makes a great story, but is it credible?

Although Gladwell never mentions Shakespeare, what he has to say in Outliers gives us new insights into the conventional Shakespearean biography, for the truth uncovered about the violin students appears to be universal:
"The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again."2
By 1593, the best plays in England were written by two poets who, we are told, followed very different paths, yet ended up producing work very similar in style and substance, each exhibiting an equal world-class mastery—Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.

We can easily account for Marlowe’s achievement of mastery: He was granted a scholarship to the elite King’s School in Canterbury, and from there a Parker scholarship3to Cambridge (bestowed upon boys who could read music, sing, and compose verse), first for a Bachelor of Arts, and then continuing on scholarship for his Master of Arts. Marlowe perfected his ability to “make a verse” by translating Ovid’s Latin Amores into sophisticated English verse, the first vernacular translation of that work. Marlowe began to write plays while still at University, each work moving, by steep steps, toward mastery of his chosen field.

Shakespeare’s path had to have been very different. We do not know, but given his father’s position in the community it is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare attended the Stratford grammar school. It is thought he could not have stayed more than seven years, leaving at the age of fourteen. From then he must have worked, most likely in Stratford, since at age eighteen he married a local girl and began raising a family. By the age of twenty-one, he and his wife have three children, raising them in Stratford. Then the record goes blank. It resumes again when the first plays attributed to Shakespeare make their debut in London in the early 1590s. No one knows where Shakespeare was, or what he was doing, between starting a family in Stratford and debuting as a playwright in London, with plays which were immediately the equal of, if not better than, Marlowe plays written at nearly the same time.

How did Shakespeare achieve this feat? No one knows, but what is made clear in Gladwell’s book is that “genius” is an insufficient explanation. You also need roughly ten thousand hours of practice, a very difficult thing to achieve, as Gladwell explains:
It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be enough time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program—like a hockey all-star squad—or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.4
This description applies perfectly to Christopher Marlowe. But could it also apply to Shakespeare?

If the research in Outliers is any indication, in order to produce plays and poetry which equalled Marlowe’s in refinement and skill, in the same time span, Shakespeare must have logged a similar amount of time studying and practicing as Marlowe (that they were the same age makes comparison easier). The burden rests on Shakespeare’s biographers to try and explain how this might have happened, or how it was even possible.

Those of us who argue that Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare have an explanation of where this fully-fledged Shakespearean mastery came from that is consistent with the research gathered in Outliers. We know that Marlowe (as is assumed of Shakespeare) was born a genius, but it was his environment, the lucky breaks he got in his childhood, his access to books, his scholarships, his leisure time to study and practice, his time to converse with other like-minded individuals, that made him, by 1593, arguably the greatest poet-playwright in England.

Shakespeare’s current biographers are wise enough to realize that “genius” is not a sufficient explanation, and they range far and wide to try and account for the incredible phenomenon of “Shakespeare”: He spent his youth as a page in the house of a nobleman; he was a teacher; he was a law-clerk; he patched up plays while on tour with acting troupes; he browsed book-sellers stalls and ended up equalling the learning of the university-educated. Since Shakespeare did achieve this mastery, the reasoning goes, one or more of these explanations must account for it. It is difficult to see how, though. Between working and raising a family Shakespeare had much going against him, perhaps as much as Marlowe had going for him. Gladwell’s summary also serves us here:
We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But there’s nothing in any of the histories we’ve looked at so far to suggest things are that simple. These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society.5
This explanation fits Marlowe’s story; could it also fit Shakespeare’s? What Shakespeare did or did not do during his formative years is unknown, and will probably remain unknown. But could he have had the opportunities, and the sheer number of hours necessary, to become a playwright who was able to write plays and poems at the same level of mastery as Marlowe’s in the same time-frame? This is not a question borne of snobbery, the usual retort tossed out when this issue is raised. Rather, it simply asks for an acknowledgment of the way the world actually works.

Daryl Pinksen

© Daryl Pinksen, August 2010

Daryl Pinksen, a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, is the author of Marlowe's Ghost: The Blacklisting of the Man Who Was Shakespeare, Grand Prize Winner of the 17th Annual Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.

1Gladwell, Malcolm. 2008. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company. p. 39.
[One of the many wonderful articles by Ericcson and his colleagues about the ten-thousand-hour rule is K. Anders Ericcson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363-406.] Outliers Notes pp. 288-9.
2Gladwell. 2008. p.40.
[Daniel J. Levitan talks about the ten thousand hours it takes to get mastery in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006), p. 197.”] Outliers Notes p. 289.
3Archbishop Matthew Parker’s scholarship was awarded to boys who could "at first sight to solf and sing plainsong" and to be "if it may be, such as can make a verse."
4Gladwell. 2008. p.42.
5Gladwell. 2008. p.67.

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RexInfiniti said...

All-around interesting.

Does Oxford fit the genius bill?

Daryl Pinksen said...

There's no evidence for Oxford's poetic genius. But don't take my word for it, why not read Oxford's poetry and decide for yourself? (Just click on my name)

Sam Blumenfeld said...

Shapiro cites Shakespeare's supposed "imagination" as the sole explanation for his ability to produce the 36 plays in the First Folio. Imagination without the ten thousand hours of learning how to use the English language would hardly account for the greatest dramas ever written. Great insights, Daryl.

Anthony Kellett said...

Obviously, I would be expected to agree with this theory, since it was one of the major points in my ‘Businessman’ article, which appeared on this blog. In this respect, I am pleased Daryl has found something which supports my assertions too; thank you, Daryl!

However, whilst I continue to agree with its relevance here, I would be less enthusiastic with it being applied without each case being analysed individually. I say this because, in each case, I would like to know the definitions of “mastery” and “success” that are being applied and what skill is actually being mastered (since that is not as obvious as it may seem). Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol, for example; masters of art, or marketing? J. K. Rowling made $1bn from her first seven books; master of literature requiring a ‘Shakespearean’ 10,000 hours; or could that time have been accrued telling bedtime stories to siblings and children? Moreover, is $1bn an acceptable measure of “success”? I think so, but others may disagree, quite rightly, because one could argue measuring “success” is subjective.

I know these points are somewhat irrelevant, since I have acknowledged Daryl’s point, as it applies to this subject. I simply felt that the point was being presented as a fait accompli; and I’m not so sure I would concur with it being applied carte blanche without scrutinising the parameters of each and every application.

Notwithstanding the above caveat, I think this is excellent, Daryl.

Daryl Pinksen said...


I understand what you're saying. The implications should not be applied to all subjects carte blanche.

Gladwell, as I understand, is talking about highly complex vocations, like world-class pianist, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, or Wimbledon winning tennis player, which require intellectual genius or athletic giftedness as the price of admission.

The task of absorbing the traditions of classical, renaissance, and contemporary literature, and then transforming them into something which synthesizes and transcends all of it on a national/global scale, fits Gladwell's criteria. The other examples you listed may not.

isabel Gortazar said...

I'm afraid I must agree with Anthony in his caveat. No amount of training hours at writing plays could have made Jonson or Middleton write like Shakespeare.

Excellency in any job that has an element of mechanicity in it, such as playing musical instruments or playing sports, or dancing, does depend on practice, and it is easy to believe that success is directly related to the number of hours dedicated to such practice.

Nevertheless, I hope Gladwell clarifies that even the most strenuous practice routine will do very little to make a first-class violinist out of a tone-deaf chld.

Moreoever, I am not sure this practice-related rule can be automatically applied to predominantly creative activities, such as writing "War and Peace" or painting the "Mona Lisa".

In the case of "creative" rather then "performative" excellence, it seems to me that the artist needs to have all three: the native genius, the hours of practice and the appropriate education.

So, while I find Daryl's article extremely interesting as a partial study of the authorship question, such as deals with adequate training and education for the job, I think the argument requires refining.

daver852 said...

There are people who are said to have a "tin ear" for music; they cannot tell one melody from another. Anyone who believes that de Vere wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare must have a tin ear for poetry. Forget the technical and historical arguments; the voice is simply not the same. Whereas Marlowe and Shakespeare are so alike as to be indistinguishable.

Tim Nash said...

10,000 hours is an 'expert' figure for the modern world, with a much larger population. Blank verse was also a new form so a fairer estimate would be with the time it took to be a top tennis player before World War 1.

To me, one of the unsolved questions is where Shakespeare spent any hours acquiring the skills. Books were expensive and there is no record of his spending time in or borrowing from the great private libraries of the day. No record of his sharpening verbal skills with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh. Indeed the only strong possibility for the Shakespeare as author cause seems to be the theatre and those missing years.

isabel Gortazar said...

Notwithstanding what I said,I've just remembered Jonson's opinion on the matter:

"For a good Poet's made, as well as borne.
And such wert thou. Looke how the fathers face
Lives in his issue, even so, the race
Of Shakespeares minde and manners brightly shines
In his well toned, and true-filed lines:
In each of which, he seemes to shake a Lance,
As brandish't at the eyes of Ignorance."

Neat, isn't it?
And what about Shakespeare "shaking a Lance... at the eyes of ignorance"?

Clues don't come much clearer than that. What do Stratfordians say about those two lines? Anybody knows?

Daryl Pinksen said...

The presumed differences between Shakespeare's work, and the work of the university educated, is a point scholarship is at great pains to address without apparent contradiction.

The work of Shakespeare is full of classical allusions. Yes, we know that large chunks of Ovid and other Roman writers were memorized at the grammar schools. By way of analogy, fourteen year olds today study Shakespeare (let's confine this to the gifted) in and before grade nine. But, it's also studied at the university by twenty year olds. The top students who study Shakespeare in grade nine have a vastly inferior appreciation of the works than the top students who studied the same works at university.

At age fourteen, which was the senior level at the grammar schools, the abstract reasoning centers of the brain have barely switched on, even in the brilliant. It's a question of cognitive maturation, not IQ.

Shakespeare understood Ovid, and the rest of the classical world, at the same depth and breadth as our top university graduates understand Shakespeare, not in the way that our top grade nine graduates understand Shakespeare.

That doesn't mean it's impossible for Shakespeare to have achieved a level of Ovidian scholarship equal to the university elites, it does mean that it is incumbent upon scholars to explain how it "could" have happened, since, we are told, it did.

Donna Murphy said...

Well done, Daryl. Yes, Shakespeare was a genius, as were Einstein and Mozart. But Einstein received training in mathematics and physics, and Mozart’s father was a professional musician who encouraged every effort by his precocious son.

White_n_Nerdy1701 said...

I read the book and I agree I found the 10,000 hour part very interesting. It showed how hard one actually has to work and practice to become great at something.

Rod Lewis said...

Nothing explains this more to me than the succes of the wonderfully engaging film Forrest Gump. Forrest is a world class athlete, war hero, business and investment genius. Forrest is a total fiction that people want to believe in. There is no reason why any person should take this story serioulsy for more than 10 minutes, but it won 6 academy awards....and that is why shakespeare wrote shakespeare...not

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, read Outliers in January 2012 and found it to be a great read!

You might find my following posts useful & in sync with your article here:

The Curious Case of ‘Outliers’ & the Pursuit of Excellence – I:

The curious case of Outliers & the Pursuit of Excellence – II:

Best, Monce