Outliers and 10,000 Hours

Outliers is marketed as the story of success. Gladwell spends most of the book explaining the reasons why Bill Gates, Asian mathematicians and Canadian hockey players are successful and how it mostly comes down to uncontrollable factors like birth year and location. He makes a very compelling case for the zeitgeist of 1953-55 for computer magnates, January 1 for Canadian hockey players and rice paddies for Chinese mathematicians.

In chapter three, Gladwell theorizes that 10,000 hours is roughly the amount of time people practice to become experts in their field. He uses a bunch of examples but doesn’t go into any detail and neglects to mention that “practice” in the doodling/playing/scribbling sense doesn’t create experts. Instead, what creates expertise is 10,000 hours of concerted practice that takes the practitioner to the edge of their comfort zone and abilities and continually expands the level of their ability. Practice like this is exhausting, uncomfortable and un-fun so most amateurs never become experts regardless of how many hours they practice. (I only know this information because I read an amazing article in Scientific American about 15 years ago that explored this very topic of expertise.)

This is my main problem with Outliers: in a whole book about success, only one chapter is devoted to the work involved and it’s covered without any depth. In an effort to prove that success isn’t a character trait, Gladwell doesn’t truly explore the way that all successful people work and instead focuses on the lucky breaks that came their way. Yes, successful people are offered unique opportunities but they take them. They hunt down possibilities, pursue people who can mentor or help them, work at weird hours of the night and spend weekends, holidays and all their spare time pushing their craft into new territory. Given that kind of work ethic and focused pursuit, who can say what contributes more to their success, a birth year or a sheer amount of concerted practice? A hundred people were born the same year and place as Bill Gates and a decent percentage of those people probably had intellects equal to his and access to the same opportunities. They didn’t take them. He did.

I find Gladwell frustrating. I want to like Outliers but there’s nothing in it that changes my thought process about my own life. There’s no application or method that channels his research into something more useful because he focuses on factors beyond anyone’s conscious control.

Gladwell keeps writing books that approach human success and abilities from different standpoints. I feel like he’s getting around to something useful but he’s not there yet.

4 thoughts on “Outliers and 10,000 Hours

  1. This past weekend I heard MG interviewed on NPR. After our chat about this book over sushi, I was annoyed with him. Then I heard this guy interviewed about *his* new book and was totally predispositioned to reverse my perspective on “Blink” = ) http://bit.ly/partnoywait

    • oooh, so interesting. Although, I wonder if maybe some of the same principles are at work and there is instant subconscious recognition (blink) but it takes a bit for it all to surface in the conscious mind (wait)?

  2. I put the book on my Amazon “someday” list. I didn’t catch the whole interview, but it sounds like the overall gist is that there’s often an advantage in waiting until the last feasible moment to decide/act — that in the interim situations change, you get new information, etc. — and the talent we should pursue is recognizing when that last feasible moment is. That or precognition = )

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