This month, we're reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell to learn more about the people who succeed - and more importantly, why they succeed.

The premise of the book is that people referred to as outliers - the most successful of us all - had unique circumstances in their upbringing, from culture to timing to location, that shaped them for success. Their achievements didn't come about because they were born with more talent than the rest of us, or because they have specific personality traits that guaranteed fame and fortune. It was because their life circumstances taught them - or enabled them - to learn and work in a different way.

On one hand, this is comforting, isn't it? It means that even if we don't have great genes coded for superior intelligence, we can still be a success. But on the other hand, it's a little scary. What if we don't have the kinds of life circumstances or experiences that generally occur to make a person a success? Are we doomed to mediocrity? That would suck. So what can we do to help make ourselves more successful? Or even give our kids help to increase their chances of success?

Let's take a look and find out.

The Role of Chance

The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

One element of being an outlier, according to Gladwell, is a lucky break, pure and simple. Sometimes things beyond your control put you in line for success. As an example, he talks about professional Canadian hockey players. As kids, Canadian boys often join youth hockey leagues. Kids who show promise in a novice league will be given extra coaching and help. If they continue to do well, they can make it into an elite league that puts them in line for even more support and coaching, and an eye toward professional play. But before anyone knows if a child shows promise, he's put in a novice league based on his age.

What does a birthday have to do with a hockey player's chances for success?

A lot, as it tuned out.

Analyze the birth dates of professional Canadian hockey players, and 40% of them will be between January and March. An additional 30% will be between April and June. Turns out, this is because the novice hockey leagues group boys by age, with a January 1 birthday cut-off date. A team of ten-year-olds, for example, would consist of boys with birthdays on January 2 through January 1 of the next year. The boys with early birthdays are almost a full year older than boys with later birthdays. They're often bigger, faster, and stronger. These bigger, faster, stronger players are more likely to get the extra coaching help and game time that build their skills. Compound that extra help and practice time over the next few years, and the boys born earlier in the year are far more likely to end up in elite leagues and then on professional teams.

The arbitrary enrollment cut-off date is the lucky break that made some of these boys "outliers."

If you're like us, this makes sense, but is also a bit depressing. We can't do anything to change these kinds of circumstances. So how does this help us get better at what we do?

The Role of Practice

Luckily, chance isn't everything, according to Gladwell.

We overlook just how large a role we all play - and by "we" I mean society - in determining who makes it and who doesn't.

If you weren't born a genius, don't worry. Just spend 10,000 practicing a discipline, and you'll reach an expert level. This, he says, is what really happened with Mozart and The Beatles. By the time The Beatles became famous in 1964, Gladwell notes, the band had already played more than 1,200 concerts, sometimes for 8 hours a night, 7 days a week. That's a lot of practice!

Similarly, in the 1990s, psychologists found that elite young violinists in Berlin had practiced for more than 10,000 hours from age 5 to age 20, while more average performers had practiced about 4,000 hours. Before starting Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen had already racked up 10,000+ hours of coding practice, thanks to a computer terminal at their school and access to a computer at a nearby university (here's one of those lucky breaks). By now, you probably get the drift - the people we think of as naturally talented often just paid their dues with exhaustive practice, and maybe had a lucky break or two.

But what about sports?

Interestingly enough, Gladwell later clarified that the 10,000-hour rule doesn't hold true for sports - probably because this is a place where genetics can actually trump practice. Purely by virtue of genetics, Shaquille O'Neal will always be more suited to basketball than, say, gymnastics. Similarly, a 4'10" gymnast is probably not going to reach an expert level of basketball play even with 10,000 hours of practice.

Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

There are quite a few scientific studies that dispute Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule. In The Click Moment by Frans Johansson, the author notes that practice really only helps in sports or disciplines where the rules stay the same - tennis and chess being prime examples. For something like entrepreneurship, however, the job isn't the same every day, so those 10,000 hours will give you experience, but not mastery.

Whether you believe in the 10,000-hour rule or not, there's a lot we can take away from his book:

  • You don't have to be born a genius to succeed.
  • Plan on banking years of of diligent practice if you want to be an expert in a particular field of study.
  • Culture, birth timing, and community have an effect on a person's chances for success.
  • Opportunities and knowledge don't come from books alone - we need the people around us to provide examples, access, and experience, too.

At its core, this is a book about connections...and hope. The people and places you grew up with matter - you might not even know how much. Sometimes you catch a lucky break. Sometimes you don't. All you can control is the amount of time you dedicate to learning how to do something. Choose wisely.

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