Belgian sperm, bobsleighs and the 10,000 hour rule

Tintin and his dog Snowy, by Hergé, on the roof of the former headquarters of Le Lombard near Gare du Midi/Zuidstationin Bruxelles. Image by Belamp/Wikipedia. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Tintin and his dog Snowy, by Hergé, on the roof of the former headquarters of Le Lombard near Gare du Midi/Zuidstationin Bruxelles. Image by Belamp/Wikipedia. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

You might not have realised it, but Belgium is a hotbed of creativity, and especially in the advertising industry. The country has won 78 Cannes Lions in the past four years, the industry’s most prestigious award. In short, Belgium is to advertising what Brazil is to football.

And yet – shockingly – young Belgians are not flocking to the sector. So alarmed are some of the country’s top creatives that they have been donating sperm to try to create a new generation of advertising geniuses. (You can read the full, funny and very Belgian, story here.)

Okay, the donations part of an advertising campaign to promote the country’s industry. For those of us who are interested in multi-generational success, though, it highlights a very big question: just how hereditary is brilliance? Does all that Belgian sperm really contain an army of advertising geniuses?

The entire concept of family business is predicated on the idea that skills and talent can be passed on or are hereditary. But there is a lot of evidence to show that this is not true. As a nod-of-the-head to those brave chaps from the land of Tintin, you might call it the “Belgian Fallacy”.

10,000 HOURS

In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell popularised the “10,000-hour rule”, the idea that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something. The origin of the idea was an article in American Scientist years earlier by Herbert Simon and William Chase about high-level chess players . They wrote:

There are no instant experts in chess – certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…

Other studies found that 10 years was the minimum for composers to produce what was considered great work. Gladwell said that The Beatles reached their 10,000 hours playing hundreds of gigs in Hamburg dive bars, while Bill Gates got a computer in 1968 aged 13 and played with it constantly while his peers hadn’t the access or the inclination. As one psychologist called Angela Duckworth put it, “grit” is a better predictor of success than talent, or IQ.

Things are not so straightforward, however. In a book called The Sports Gene sports writer David Epstein said that in some sports 10,00 hours are not required for excellence. Two examples he gives involve the skeleton and bobsleigh, winter sports that involve hurtling down icy tunnels at terrifying speeds.

However, what links these sports is that the pool of people who do them is small – in this case because they are fantastically scary – so it is “easier” to be successful at them. In fact, the point can be made about the Winter Olympics in general, which is really only open to those who come from cold places.

Something similar can be said about sports like three-day eventing or polo: only people who are lucky enough to have access to horses can qualify, which could be why aristocrats and royals are over-represented on the Olympic podium.

Another writer, Daniel Goleman, argued in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence that it is not the 10,000 hours per se that matter, but the quality of that 10,000 hours.  Quite obviously, there is no point practising a terrible golf swing over and over again; you need to change the swing. And so, he argues, you need a good coach, or there needs to be a “feedback loop” as he puts it.


What can family businesses take from this?

Firstly, you can’t rely on inheriting “talent”. It might be possible for simple skills like running fast to be passed on (as any stud-farm owner will tell you) but in complicated activities as music, chess or business you still need to put in a lot of hard work to be successful.

If you are a next generation family business member who is entitled or simply doesn’t want to put in the hours to get good, then don’t try. Take on a passive role and become an owner, hire professional managers, and do something you are good at. Or you could sell up. But don’t feel inferior because of it. You are not less talented than your forebears, you just didn’t have the same opportunities or inclinations. That is not a failing, it’s just a fact.

Secondly, play to your strengths. If you have a stable full or horses, don’t try to become a sprinter. Everybody and his dog is telling you to innovate right now, but you might not have to. Many of Germany’sMittelstand businesses are champions of doing one thing well.

For example, 70-year-old, 100% family-owned Renolit makes plastic films and has a turnover of just under a billion euros in 2014. Elsewhere there are businesses like billion-euro-turnover Austrian logistics firm Gebruder Weiss, whose family was operating a courier service over the Alps in 1474, and probably earlier. Why diversify? Depth, not breadth, is the key for these firms.

Some businesses are the equivalent of three-day eventers, doing things that come easier to them than others. Many of the big dredging firms are family-owned, like Van Oord and Jan De Nul; as you might expect from a country that is largely below sea-level, they are good at moving water. Many of the big shipping firms are family-owned ones from Denmark and Greece, whose geographies make the industry appealing.

Others are like bob-sledders – willing to take on jobs that others won’t. People like the the Koh family from Singapore who have been tanning crocodile hides since the early 20th century – a nasty job, but having customers including Hermes and Prada prove that is worthwhile.

Thirdly, give feedback. One reason that the luxury goods sector is dominated by families is that in the past craft skills were passed on from parent to child, such as leather-working (Hermes) or glass-blowing (Riedl wineglasses). These days the skills needed might be more about marketing or product development, but communicating them fully and for free when the children are young is still the best method.

The conclusion? Forget talent, work hard, do what you know, and teach your kids. Oh – and for any ladies planning to take up the Belgian gents on their offer to create a new generation of advertising hotshots? Don’t bother.

© Business Family