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Malcolm Gladwell - The Great Ones Aren't Born, They're Outliers of Opportunity and Culture (who put in 10,000 hours)...

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Geoff Colvin's new book, "Talent is Overrated", in which he points to recent research that indicates that stars are usually not born, but developed through a process called "deliberate practice".   Check that post out if you haven't already; the concept is pretty compelling.

Colvin's a name that most of you probably won't recognize unless you are hard core readers of FortuneGladwell magazine, where he has a column called "Value Driven" - also a good read.  With that in mind, maybe you'll read Colvin's thoughts on deliberate practice being the key to success, maybe you won't. 

What if I told you that Malcolm Gladwell (books including Blink, Tipping Point) has a similar book scheduled to come out called "Outliers"?  Would you be interested in that?  I thought so.  In Outliers, Gladwell explores the concept of people who are outliers - men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are puzzling to the rest of us from a performance perspective.

Gladwell points to a few things as being key - the 10,000 hour rule, cultural differences, and opportunities others don't have based on the environment you grew up or matriculated in.

More on the concept of Outliers from a Fortune Interview with Gladwell:

"F: How did you become interested in this topic?

G: I was interested in writing about success. I just became convinced that our explanations [of what drives it] were lacking. We have the kind of self-made-man myth, which says that super-successful people did it themselves. And we have a series of other beliefs that say that our personality, our intelligence, all of our innate characteristics are the primary driving force. It's that cluster of things that I don't agree with.

The premise of this book is that you can learn a lot more about success by looking around at the successful person, at what culture they belong to, what their parents did for a living. Successful people are people who have made the most of a series of gifts that have been given to them by their culture or their history, by their generation.

F: Talk about Bill Gates. The mythology is that he was spontaneously drawn to computers. But you say that's not the case.

G: Bill Gates has this utterly extraordinary series of opportunities. When he's 13, it's 1969. He shows up at his private school in Seattle, and they have a computer room with a teletype machine that is hooked up to a mainframe downtown. Anyone who was playing on the teletype machine could do real-time programming. Ninety-nine percent of the universities in America in 1969 did not have that.

Then, when he was 15 or so, classmate Paul Allen learned that there was a mainframe at the University of Washington that was not being used between two and six every morning. So they would get up at 1:30 in the morning, walk a mile, and program for four hours. When Gates is 20, he has as much experience as people who have spent their entire lives being programmers. He has this incredible headstart.

F: What link does practice have to success?

G: The 10,000-hours rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.

F: You also talk a lot about culture. How does it affect math skills, for example?

G: We give kids from around the world the same set of math tests, and every time we get the same results: America is just below average, and then at the very, very top are Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. It occurs again and again.

There's an ultimately unconvincing argument that this has to do with IQ. I think what it has to do with is culture. Asian culture has a profoundly different relationship to work. It rewards people who are persistent.

Take a random group of 8-year-old American and Japanese kids, give them all a really, really hard math problem, and start a stopwatch. The American kids will give up after 30, 40 seconds. If you let the test run for 15 minutes, the Japanese kids will not have given up. You have to take it away.

I argue that this has to do with the kind of agriculture pursued in the West and the East going back thousands of years. I have ancestors who were peasant farmers in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. They probably worked 1,000 hours a year, if that. In the winter, they slept. They drank a lot of beer.

These Asian cultures are all wet-rice agricultural economies. Growing rice is this extraordinarily complex, labor-intensive activity that requires not just physical engagement but mental engagement. So a farmer in 14th-century Japan or 14th-century China was working 3,000 hours a year - three times longer. I know it sounds hard to believe, but habits laid down by our ancestors persist even after the conditions that created those habits have gone away.

Fascinating stuff.  Most of you probably won't be compelled to Colvin's book, but many of you will buy Malcolm's.  Enjoy it.


Grant Czerepak

I think Malcolm is on the right track.

I just finished reading Six Degrees by Duncan J. Watts which is an introduction Network Theory. At one point in the final chapters Duncan says that the foundation of success has more to do with being at the right time and place than anything else. President Calvin Coolidge summed it up well calling it "persistence." Woody Allen summarized with the words, "Show up."

Suzanne Rumsey

I think it's two things - capabilities, if you will. One, recognizing opportunities that come your way. Bill Gates recognized the opportunity he had to learn programming skills. Two, seizing the opportunity when you recognize it. Bill Gates seized the opportunities to program - both at his private school and at U. Washington.

So, yes, being in the right place at the right time is critical. But also knowing what to do when you are there is necessary, too. How many of us have failed to recognize that the opportunity we needed was right there, we just could see it, or if we could, didn't reach out to seize it?


Suzanne -

Great thought, and I'll add something to it. Not only do you have to recognize the opportunity, but you have to have the drive, persistance and fortitude to put in the hours necessary to get it done once you recognize the opportunity.

I'm about halfway done with Colvin's book on the same topic. It's one thing to recognize the opportunity, but there's still the matter of putting in thousands of hours to be world class, or hundreds of hours to become "better".

I'm wondering if failing to recognize opportunities is code/rationalization for not having the drive to attack the opportunity that's in front of you.

Interesting questions....


Interesting post and comments. Gladwell was actually interviewed by NPR's "All Things Considered" yesterday (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97117414), with similar answers to Fortune's interview.

It was a compelling interview. I have read neither book, although I am likely now to read both, and thought that Gladwell's argument that lots of people are smart but it's the opportunities that the smart people get that make them spectacular, was interesting. Now that I've read both Suzanne's and KD's comments - I have to agree. Thought provoking stuff...

Tanya @ Recess

Weird. One of my coordinators just brought up this book and the math question this morning. I work very very hard to create a disciplined work environment based on long range planning, consistency and that persistence he talks about. I find that it creates a much more humane working environment (for starters no one goes home thinking about work or losing sleep because of the nagging fear that they forgot something). We have very few surprises in our work because typically before we ever do anything it's been on our radar for nearly a month already. The biggest problem we have had with that is that American workers are so used to instant grat and reactive work environment that often they just don't find a well planned, hardworking but rarely in a state of panic work environment stimulating. Worse yet, some find it downright exhausting because of the amount of constant vigilance required day to day versus farting around for long stretches and then working like a manic for stretches. It makes recruiting fun!

Ben R

I think Dan Seligman's book "A Question of Intelligence" does a better job explaining the performance of East Asians on math/science subjects. Essentially, if you look at the group average, they do particularly well on the non-verbal component of psychometric tests. This is consistent with their performance on math/science subjects. Seligman also notes possible explanations of this including:

"Severely compressed, his explanation goes about like this: Some sixty thousand years ago, when the lee Age descended on the Northern Hemisphere, the Mongoloid populations faced uniquely hostile "selection pressure" for greater intelligence. Northeast Asia during the Ice Age was the coldest part of the world inhabited by man. Survival required major advances in hunting skills. Lynn's 1987 paper refers to "the ability to isolate slight variations in visual stimulation from a relatively featureless landscape, such as the movement of a white Arctic hare against a background of snow and ice; to recall visual landmarks on long hunting expeditions away from home and to develop a good spatial map of an extensive terrain." These, Lynn believes, were the pressures that ultimately produced the world's best visuospatial abilities."


Rutgers Fan -

You'll enjoy the Colvin book - I've got about 40 more pages, and it's been a great read. Sure Gladwell's will be the same...

Tayna - A month's worth of planning? What are you? Stalin with the 5 year plan... :)

Ben R - You're a deep individual, you had me at "hostile "selection pressure". Come back often and I need to introduce you to Chris, another Jack "deep thoughts" Handy thinker. See his last commment on the 64% turnover post....


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i like the Geoff Colvin's new book very much .and his "Value Driven" is also a very good read. his topic about success is really has good infuence to people.

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