I see a fair number of people reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers while I’m commuting. I haven’t read it myself yet, but it seems that a key feature of his case is the “10,000 hour rule”, the idea that many people who are extremely good at a given task have spent at least that long perfecting their skills. (This derives from the work of Anders Ericsson and Herb Simon over the last thirty or forty years).
One of the more perceptive reviews of Gladwell’s book I’ve read is by Michael Nielsen. He brings up the problems that many scientists have had with some of Gladwell’s past work, and according to him, if you weren’t happy with Blink or The Tipping Point, you may well not be happy with this one. (Of course, if you didn’t like those, you probably won’t read this one!) Of course, as a scientist, when you read about something like the ten-thousand-hour rule, the first thing you ask yourself is “Hmm. I wonder if that’s true?” But as Nielsen points out:
There are, of course, many provisos to the 10,000 hour rule. As just one example, to acquire mastery in an area, it’s not enough to just practice for 10,000 hours; the person practicing must constantly strive to get better. Someone who practices without pushing themselves will plateau, no matter how many hours they practice. I suspect many scientists fall afoul of this proviso, putting in enormous hours, but mostly doing administrative or drudge work which doesn’t extend their abilities.
But that said, Nielsen goes on to talk about some scientists who have done great work well before their 10,000 hour mark. These people were working at discontinuities, sudden discoveries that didn’t necessarily build on the past, so they didn’t have as much of a tradition or art to master. A thorough grasp of 19th-century physics didn’t help people much when it came time for quantum mechanics. It wouldn’t be surprising, Nielsen says, if a disproportionate number of great discoveries in science fell into this category.
Now, which category does drug discovery fall into? We have a fair amount of art to be learned and experience to be gained, true. But there’s another factor that confounds things: sheer luck. I think that the fundamental issues of drug design are still so poorly understood that no amount of skill can compensate for them. I’m thinking of difficulties like designing compounds that have good oral absorption or blood-brain barrier penetration – sure, there are guidelines, and there are things that you learn to avoid, but once past those it’s a crap shoot. And then there’s toxicity – you learn pretty quickly not to put known landmine groups into your molecules, but after that, you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
These things also mean that there’s a good amount of work to be done that doesn’t extend a person’s abilities, as the quote above has it. The worst of it is being outsourced these days, the well-known “methyl ethyl butyl futile” stuff, but there’s still a lot of pickaxe work that has to be done in any drug project. It would be a fine thing if ten thousand hours of hard work and practice allowed someone to come in and make nontoxic molecules, but they often have to be discovered by trial and error, and more of the latter.
That said, I take Nielsen’s point about putting in good hours rather than empty ones. As much as possible, I think that we should try to do things that we haven’t done before, learn new skills, and move into untried areas. Try not to get butyl-futiled if you can possibly avoid it; it’s not going to do you much good, personally, to set up another six or eight EDC couplings. There are times that that’s exactly what needs to be done, but don’t set them up just because you can’t think of anything else. This gets back to the point I’ve made about making yourself valuable; anyone can set up amide reactions, unfortunately. Maybe some of the time we spend learning our trade is spent learning how to avoid falling into all the tar pits and time-wasting sinkholes we have.