What I Learned from “Outliers”

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Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.

  1. It takes about 10,000 hours for your average wildly successful person to get to wild success. That breaks down to 40 hours/week for five years (with a two-week vacation each year).
  2. IQ is only a predictor of success up to the point of “smart enough.” (Above about 120, there is no longer a direct correlation between IQ and success.)
  3. No one gets successful without help. The “self-made” wo/man is a myth.
  4. “Help” takes a number of different forms, including luck.
    • Being born at the right time (e.g. being born between population booms = smaller classes, more opportunities, less competition).
    • Being born into a class that encourages success (e.g. the middle class parent teaches her child to question standards and authority articulately).
    • Being born into a family that facilitates your success (e.g. foots the bill).
    • Being born into a culture where steady hard work is normative (e.g. rice farmers in China who work 365 days a year, the effort correlating directly to successful results).
  5. If you happen to have been started (by lucky parentage, culture or interest + opportunity) on those 10,000 hours at the age of five (Mozart) or fifteen (Bill Gates), you got there ahead of your peers and are a “genius.”
  6. Pair that kind of luck with the good timing luck (say, being born just after the Industrial Revolution, or coming of age just before computers became accessible to everyone else) and you have a recipe for massive wealth. As long as you seize the opportunity presented to you by all that luck.

Being a.) human (self-centered), and b.) me (worried about achievement), of course, I want to know what this means for me.

In the plus column:

  • I can totally hack 10,000 hours. Check.
  • IQ. Fine. Check.
  • “Talent” and “genius” = b*llshit. If you work harder and stick with it longer, you’ll come out on top. That’s what I think. Hooray!
  • “Self-made” = b*llshit. Good. I always suspected as much. Every time you scratch the surface, you find out that Christian Slater’s mom is a casting agent. Or something like that.
  • I got some individual good luck. Middle class. OK. Education better than most. OK. Stubborn. Yes. Nice sunglasses. Ahoy. Does not run with scissors. Hello.
  • I got some social luck. Western developed nation woman = no massive oppression. Not of age during a war or a depression = reasonable shot at self-determined success. I wasn’t born two years ago, so I’m not in the most recent population boom.

In the not-so-plus column:

  • Peacetime (relatively) = lots of competition.
  • Not Chinese rice farmer + had summer vacations = not good in math.
  • Not born in January in Canada + not a boy = no Stanley Cup.
  • Troubled home = not so much with the support + lots of therapy = late start. I wish I’d gotten a jump on the 10,000 hours sooner. (Gladwell has encouraging things to say about that too though.)

That’s not so bad, right? Could definitely be worse.

What’s nice about all this is that it puts the ball firmly back in your court. If you put in the time, you can get there. No more “talent” / “genius” mumbo jumbo. Work hard and persevere creatively (get as much help as you can + seize opportunities + learn, learn, learn if you weren’t born into the knowledge you need).

The rest is luck, over which you have no control anyway, so there’s no point in worrying about it or resenting it or so on. Hopefully working towards and doing what you’re meant to do is reward in itself, even if massive riches don’t follow.

(Although those would also be welcome. Let me know if you get those. I’d be delighted to be part of some luck/wealth re-distribution effort.)

Anyway, I’ve got to get going. I’ve got, like 9,000 hours of work ahead of me.

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One Comment on “What I Learned from “Outliers””

  1. Michael Carlson
    April 26, 2009 at 6:21 pm #

    Don’t forget about partial credit. You might have been accumulating progress toward genius while also doing something else. Me, I figure I’ve spent 30,000 hours wasting my professors’ and employers’ and friends’ time with various roundabout versions of my genius (the invention of a new form of tetherball). I’d say I was operating at about 33% efficiency, so there’s my 10,000.

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