Monday, April 06, 2009

Last Book Read: Outliers

I've just finished Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. (The Kindle version, actually, read on my iPhone.)

I went through it with an eye to documentary production -- which makes it a very strange read. Some of his main points -- mastery of a craft will take 10,000 hours of work, practical intelligence is more important than I.Q., timing is critical regarding opportunities -- are fairly common-sense-based if we think about fields like music or computer programming or math.

But filmmaking?

A good argument can be made that he's wrong: the people with the "most" experience are often hacks, doing drudgery-work. The most "practical" folk end up making lowest-common-denominator work. The right-time-right-place filmmakers invariably fail on their second effort.

Clearly, his argument doesn't apply directly. Can we adapt it, though? It seems valuable, so can we filter it to work for doc production?


First, 10,000 hours isn't a figure to use when thinking about editing. Walter Murch seems to do about 1,000 hours of serious feature film editing a year, if we make a guess based on his books. That's probably the highest figure in the field -- I just don't think someone's hours cutting wedding videos, pre-structured television shows or anything that doesn't require high-level problem solving really count toward mastery. My guess is that someone like Murch could be said to get close to mastery after cutting three features -- 3,000 hours of work, give or take. I expect, though, that we're talking about a practice where pure hours don't matter above a certain point. Rather, Gladwell's 10,000 hours probably translates -- for those with the opportunity to work extended hours at the high levels of the craft -- into somewhere between 5 and 10 years of intense work. And that does seem to match reality, as far as I can tell.

Second, practical intelligence does seem to be more important than any raw I.Q. Making a documentary is dependent, in most cases, on one's ability to work with people -- whether a documentary subject or a crew. And the ability to get people to help you get what you need -- something Gladwell stresses -- is clearly more important than pure knowledge. So here Gladwell's notion is probably on target.

Gladwell's idea of being born to the right time and place for big success, however, is a little hard to apply to the field. Pick any doc maker with at least 2 big hits -- Barbara Kopple or Ondi Timoner, Al Maysles or Michael Moore -- and you'd be hard pressed to see a reason that success couldn't have happened in another time and place. There are always waves rising and falling: television supporting documentary production, then letting it go, film festivals rising, then falling, then rising again, DVD sales climbing then falling, and now the Web. There's been no "lucky elevator" to catch -- just films that are good enough to jump out of the box marked "documentary" onto the shelf for "new releases."

So why bother with Gladwell if he's just giving us common sense, and if it isn't a perfect match for documentary production?

My answer is that what he's really done in his book is to go against "common sense" -- the popular idea that success is a product of genius, that brilliance translates to productivity, that lightning can strike anywhere. He's instead pushed a very pragmatic take: put in long hours, find ways to work with people, and wait for a hittable pitch. There's nothing wrong with any of that advice, and nothing very surprising about it. His bigger point -- that if we as a society recognized these principles, we could produce twice as many "successful" students as our current "genius will out" model -- is the real value of this book.

Think about the current model: students go to film school, and those that do well earliest get the most access to higher training and resources. Everyone else is expected to bow to that glimmer of genius they've shown, and perhaps move toward "craft" -- serving those "natural Directors" as lighting crew, or as a camera loader. Just fantastic.

The main dent in that model came when computers became powerful enough to edit at home. Suddenly, a DV-camcorder and a copy of Final Cut Pro was a bit of an equalizer. But there's been a constant pushback since that revolution: the shift to HD production, the idea that "Dude, you've got to shoot on the Red camera!" and the idea of "production values" has returned us to that old-school model: get to USC, make the best short in your first class, and you're a "Director" with everyone else supporting your feature production and the school paying your way.

I'm with Gladwell: I think that existing model is the reason we get "The Fast and the Furious 18" as the tentpole of our culture. I'd rather have twenty of the people from the crew making their own shorts, and I think our culture would benefit more from that.

The takeaway? "Outliers" deflation of our expectation that "success comes from innate talent" is a perfect message for these times. We've lost our veneration for merit -- expecting instead that success will come from oversinging on a television reality show. All the hype in the world can't match what can be done with hard work -- and as a culture we don't seem to want to believe that.

What Gladwell does is pile up the evidence for it. I think it's worth considering.


Chris said...

Nice post Ted. While I don't necessarily agree with the fortune cookies that say "Genius is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration", I do absolutely agree that attitude and work ethic can absolutely help someone to distance themselves from the crowd.


Ted Fisher said...

Thanks, Chris.

Now I just have to go put in another 9,987 hours of work....