Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

What I Learned from “Outliers”


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.

Late bloomer

dontgiveup2.jpgWhen I was a kid, I was an overachiever. I’m sure it had a lot to do with reading. Our mother read to us and I read on my own early and voraciously. (The usual reasons: loneliness, broken family, parents who didn’t believe in television, a tough move.) So I had mad language skills when I was pretty young and it went on from there. Top of my class, most likely to succeed, admission to conservatories and good schools. I assumed my trajectory would continue on an upward slope indefinitely.

It hasn’t.


For starters, I chose the arts (writing, theater) which has no clear trajectory and which has a heavy requirement of support: financial (who pays your rent?), personal (do you have a cast iron ego?), interpersonal (does someone believe in you?), and professional (do you known anyone?). In my twenties, I had none of these, so I started working. I built a successful career in an area in which I have no particular interest (e-commerce management). My personality makes me good at it (high standards and organizational skills) and I’ve done very well, but it’s not what I meant to do.

(In retrospect, I could have chosen something more soul-deadening but wildly lucrative, like investment banking, but I just couldn’t get there. Too much math and lying. I also might have chosen something riskier, meaningful and proximate to my interests, like writing for the Clinton campaign when I had the chance, but proximate isn’t what 22-year-olds are about, at least not this one.)

Then there’s therapy. I went into therapy because I was depressed and couldn’t seem to get it together. I’m sure some of that depression was because of the dents and cuts in my head from banging it against the glass ceiling on the inside of my own head. Long story short, I’m damaged and driven, but not in the cool way that makes you a huge success at 26. I would have been fine with the damage if I could have had the success, the kind of damage that makes for a brilliant book about being damaged. Turns out my brand of damage was the kind that made me unfocused and frightened. Bad luck.

So here I am on a sunny Saturday, scanning the facebook of the Obama team and wondering what Jon Favreau (speeches, not Swingers) has that I didn’t. Hugs from his mom? Connections? Dumb luck?

Where I land is where you have to land, infuriating though it is: we’re all different and there’s no way to pull it apart, no way to formularize success. You do your own thing, you do your best and the chips fall where they may. Obama didn’t know he’d be President – he wasn’t even planning for it. Harvey Milk (well, Sean Penn) says, “I’m 40 years old and I haven’t done a thing,” and look what he managed in eight years.

So maybe I wasn’t a young overachiever, an early winner, an artistic debutante. I’m leaving my job to write. Against all my young expectations, I’m a late bloomer. As long as there’s blooming, right?