Outliers by Malcome Gladwell explores what makes the between successful and unsuccessful people. And it’s often external events.
- Success is sometimes a matter of external factors
- Culture shapes us more than we think
- Long practice is the main difference between good and amazing
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that success in life is often a matter of early advantage and circuitous circumstances. Hard work goes on top and it’s also one of the most important variables, and yet often hard work is also dictated by circumstances (for example Bill Gates was in the only middle school in US with a computer terminal where he had the chance to practice programming ad Ph.D. level).
Hockey players who were born in the first three months of the year (January to March) are over-represented in the professional league. Malcolm Gladwell says that’s because of early advantages and reinforcement.
Children born in the beginning of the year had more time to develop physically, which gave them an early advantage. Then they got positive reinforcement with feedback, results and encouragement to keep going.
They ended both having more opportunity to practice more and wanting to practice more, which kept them going.
The 10.000-hours rule
Outliers by Malcom Gladwell is possibly most famous for the 10.000-hours rule, which Gladwell borrowed from psychologist Anders Ericsson, author of Peak.
The rule says that the people who reached the highest highs in their profession seemed to have trained for 10.000 hours, which is more than most of their “very good” or “good” peers did.
This idea has been heavily criticized in the sense that training is a condition sine qua non, but it’s also not enough to guarantee top performance by itself.
And reducing it to a number is simplistic.
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Gladwell looks at many successful tech entrepreneurs and notices that their birth dates also show a pattern: they were all born during the personal computing revolution period, which made it somewhat easier to achieve what they achieved.
Some languages provide an advantage in dealing with numbers.
Chinese for example has shorter names for numbers. What difference does that make? Well, people can hold in their short term memories more of those numbers.
And that provide an advantage in mentally handling them.
The logical structure of languages also makes a difference.
The English language is not logical in the way it structures its number after 10.
In Korean, Japanese and Chinese instead of the number 11 is “ten one”, which makes logical sense. And 24 is “two tens four”. This allows Asian kids, says Gladwell, to be one year ahead by age 6 when it comes to math.
Intelligence and Success
IQ points translate into success only up until 120. Any point above that threshold doesn’t correlate anymore with success. To be successful indeed you don’t have to be a genius, it’s enough not to be too below average.
Gladwell also refers to “practical intelligence” as opposed to IQ, which he describes as knowing when to say what, to whom to say and how to say it. Basically, that’s social mastery and emotional intelligence.
Real Life Applications
As long as you’re good enough… effort makes the difference
There are likely many, many fields where you can be in the top 5%. Not every single field, but there are many. Once you are good enough, then the amount of time, energy and deliberate effort you put into those activities will make all the difference between you and the rest and in the final results you will get.
Don’t listen to early results
Sometimes you can see it early if you’re good at something. But some other times not so. Stick to it for a while and don’t give up at the first difficulty.
The longer you stay at things, the better you are
As simple as that, yet so powerful. Also read Grit by Angela Duckworth.
The 10.000-hour rule is misleading
Naming a number of hours as a differentiator is preposterous. And the reality is, as usual, a bit more complex. In different fields the amount of training will have different impact and not everyone can become world class at everything solely based on training.
Also more important than the time time is how people train, read The Talent Code and the importance of deep practice.
Rice cultures and random variables
Some explanation made me think of Fooled by Randomness, which explains how men see patterns where there are none. The idea that rice gives “rice cultures” the ability to stay focused for longer seemed nonsensical to me.
Some fascinating analysis
The Java founder, the Bill Gates story, the hockey players patters… All fascinating and highly instructive stuff.
Big humility lesson
Putting so many success in context is a big humility lesson that can be useful to many of us.
Emphasis on consistency
Albeit I believe the “10.000-hours rule” is very misleading, it does have a great advantage: it highlights how much effort matters. And that’s all in our control.
Outliers is similar in many ways to other popular Gladwell’s books such as Blink and The Tipping Point. They take complex life issues, apply some research and popularize a few psychological principles in a way that makes them sound deep and smart.
And that makes for interesting reads for the layperson.
Whether or not they can contain life-changing advise or you can easily apply them to your life, that’s another question.
In my opinion, this is the worst kind of pop-psychology.