Why is everyone in Hollywood talking about 10,000 hours?

That's the amount of time that author Malcolm Gladwell says it takes for a talented person to master a cognitively complex skill -- like becoming a world-class pianist or an Olympic athlete -- in his new book, "Outliers: The Story of Success."

According to Gladwell, it's the number of hours that separates the merely good from the really great, and it's easy to see why the "10,000 hour" idea has caught fire in an industry like Hollywood, which is only partly a meritocracy, where riches rain down just as often on the lucky and the well-connected as on the talented. For many who have found success in the entertainment industry, Gladwell's theory offers a nifty, concrete explanation to the question of "Why me? Why have I climbed to the top of my field when so many others have failed?"

"Outliers" is the No. 1 New York Times bestseller at the moment, but still, reading books that can't be made into movies isn't Hollywood's usual pastime. Yet the book seems to have become the topic of conversation around town, during holiday parties and Oscar soirees. "Revolutionary Road" director Sam Mendes recently mentioned it during an interview. Will Smith, currently starring in "Seven Pounds," didn't mention "Outliers" by name during a recent chat with the Los Angeles Times, but he described a small movie he'd seen as featuring thespians who "I could tell . . . weren't world-class actors with 10,000 hours of experience."

And then there was a long conversation earlier this month with Dustin Hoffman over a burger at the Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica. Hoffman, in the midst of promoting his upcoming movie "Last Chance Harvey," brought up the book because his wife was reading it and giving him the summary.

Many will agree that the 71-year-old Hoffman is one of the greatest living actors, with two Oscars and seven nominations and memorable performances in films including "The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy," "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Rain Man."

He's an acting obsessive, cheerfully admitting that his neurotic character in "Tootsie" (who needs to know the precise variety of the tomato he's supposed to be in a commercial) is a satire of his own proclivities.

Hoffman famously did not land his career-making role in "The Graduate" until he was almost 30 years old. He spent the previous 10 years (the amount of time Gladwell says it takes to accumulate the 10,000 hours) struggling to make it in theater and film in New York City, but most of that period he actually wasn't working as an actor. "I know I've said it a million times, but it's not the worst thing in the world to be unemployed, because a writer can write, a painter can paint, but an actor can't act without a job. That's what's painful, you've got to have the job," says Hoffman.

When asked if 10 years primarily waiting tables or doing temp jobs counts in the quest for 10,000 hours, Gladwell, reached by phone, explains: "The question is not at what point you're capable of doing your job. The question is at what point you've mastered it."

Gladwell notes that "there is a raging debate among psychologists whether there is such a thing as innate talent. I'm on the side that says there really isn't. If it does exist, it plays a small role. I'm much more convinced of the contribution of practice and effort to make excellence." Before making "The Graduate," "Dustin may not have been acting, but he was thinking about acting. He was studying. He was engaging mentally, emotionally, psychologically in the difficult art of assuming a character."

Gladwell isn't suggesting that after 10,000 hours of practice, any contestant on "American Idol" can be Kelly Clarkson. "You have to have a threshold level of aptitude," he says. "What is that aptitude? Is it just the desire to want to be a musician? Or is it some separate thing called physical ability? I don't know the answer to that question."

Gladwell also is a strong believer in success lining up with being at the right place in the right time. Hoffman (as well as his peers and his close friends from the time Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall) arrived in the movie business at the moment the studio system was imploding. Hollywood was finally willing to accept a certain measure of nontraditional casting, and the gritty naturalism of the '70s played to Hoffman's strengths as an actor.

Hoffman certainly possessed an almost maniacal desire to act. He describes the 10 lean years at the beginning of his career as "very desperate, very desperate, very desperate," full of jobs like directing community theater in Fargo, N.D., and escapades like trying to rent out his vacationing roommate's room for the night to a passel of drunken sailors. And there were almost daily doses of rejection and humiliation, of auditions gone to naught. "There is so much talent that can't survive that," says Hoffman. "They quit. It's just a candle that burns out."

rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com