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.

Why you should read Born to Run

For many years I felt like I could be a runner and it was just a matter of riddling the key code that would release the runner inside me. I talked to other runners and asked them how they started and I remember two pieces of advice, both from guys named Michael:

Michael #1 said: Run every day and don’t stop to walk. Run until you’re done running and then go home. The next day, run farther.

Michael #2 said: You’re getting the most out of the run when it’s uncomfortable. You have to push through that discomfort if you want to be a runner.

It was hard to follow Michael #2’s advice because running hurt the minute I started and didn’t let up until I finished. I ran on and off for a couple of years but never managed to like it until I started running with my sister Bethany in Bellingham. Running with another person made all the difference for me. I could push myself through the discomfort of the first mile or two if someone right next to me was doing it too. After running every day for a summer in Bellingham, I discovered the key codes for my inner runner:

Consistency and persistence.

It made a big difference to run every day because I didn’t have to spend as much time at the beginning of the run remembering what I was doing. Plus, I gained mental endurance quickly. Once I’d run a mile, I knew I could do it. So I did it again. Then I ran two. Then I ran more. If I stopped for a couple days and starting up again was hard, I knew that I’d done it before so I could probably do it again. I stopped making a drama about running. I just went and did it and I learned to like it. However, I never loved it, which made Born to Run a fascinating read for me.

Born to Run is about why we run, how to run, whether the human body is built for running and what happens when you get a bunch of runners together for “a half assed pickup race in a sniper controlled corner of the Mexican outback.” It’s an adventure story mixed with a treatise on evolution, physiology, history and attitude but mainly and mostly it’s about ordinary people with a lot of prohibitive physical problems who love to push themselves to the brink of their abilities and come out victorious.

McDougall’s concludes that joy and love are integral parts of succeeding at any difficult task. He writes about how ultrarunners run for the love of the action and the motion. They run because it’s fun. It’s not a drudgery and they find joy in it even when it’s painful. McDougall argues that the most successful ultrarunners are in love with the sport but they’re also compassionate empathetic human beings who give back to the world around them. He shows how joy in one activity spills over into a whole life and how joy can be the defining factor that brings success.

I have quite a bit to chew over after reading this book; and aside from making me want to run, I’m reforming my thinking habits about other things in my life. I particularly enjoy the way McDougall’s conclusions about running strategy and intent can be transferred over to any daunting task or sticky corner of one’s life:

1. “Strive to make it easy, light, smooth and fast.” This is the very definition of doing something well and loving it. Sometimes striving for these goals means uprooting entrenched habits and forming new ones. That can be hard and painful. But every “work” should be easy, light and smooth so it will go fast.

2. “There are two goddesses in your heart, the Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Wealth…You have to give your heart to the Goddess of Wisdom… and the Goddess of Wealth will become jealous and follow you.” Do it for the love of the game, not the ultimate potential results.

Born to Run isn’t just for runners. It’s for anyone who’s ever tried (and even failed) to do something really difficult and has been changed by the process. If you’ve ever found joy in pushing yourself to the limits of your capabilities, you should read Born to Run.

Gila Cliff Dwellings and a Picnic

Alex, Carrie, Santouza and I took a picnic and went up to the Gila National Forest. Santouza got the seat of honor

New Mexico

But she really hated the switchbacks and needed Alex to keep her company

New Mexico

Alex lives in  Ohio so Carrie wanted to show him the Gila cliff dwellings, which were built by the Mogollan people on the outskirts of what is now the Gila wilderness.

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They’re about 150 feet off the canyon floor and, unlike many cliff dwellings in the Southwest, we could hike up a relatively easy trail to these cliffs and actually go inside these caves.

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Walk around the houses where people used to live

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Look out their windows

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See their artwork

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And the way they organized their living space

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It blows my mind that these stairs have survived the elements for 700 years

New Mexico

Sidebar -If you’ve read Born to Run, this is also the area where Caballo Blanco was found dead. And even further incidentally, if you haven’t read this book because you aren’t a runner, you should read it anyway because it’s a fantastic adventure story – Unsidebar

The Mimbres River runs near here

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So we stopped near the river for a picnic

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in part of the dry river bed

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It’s such a beautiful area and that much more of a bummer that it’s all closed now because of the smoke from the giant Whitewater fire that wiped out thousands of acres in the Gila forest.

We took this trip about 2 weeks ago when the fire was much smaller so these pictures predate the fire and I don’t know what this area will look like when it reopens. I’m hopeful that the cliff dwellings will survive this fire, like they’ve survived everything else for the past several centuries, and that the river will once again be full of kids.

I raise my glass to all the fire fighters who’ve been fighting the New Mexico forest fires over the last month. Thank you.

New Mexico

Keith Richards and Life

I’m listening to Keith Richard’s autobiography Life right now.

Audio books don’t usually work for me unless I have something to do while I listen. I can sit and read but I can’t just sit and listen. And I don’t spend that much time in a car these days but today I got in my car and drove around for an hour to think and look and listen to Life.

I love listening to this book because of the British accents; and I know Keith has a ghostwriter, so I’m not sure whom to credit, but I love the writing in Life. Keith’s writing voice is so calm and straightforward, even when talking about the most dramatic situations possible and I can see the strength of character that helped form one of the premiere rock and roll bands of the 20th century.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people get good at what they do. It’s weird to think that a band as gigantic as The Rolling Stones was once a collection of broke musicians, stealing food from grocery stores and playing 15-minute gigs between more popular bands because no one cared about their music. I know there are a lot of factors that affect fame, including some free floating zeitgeist that certain writers, artists and musicians find a way to tap into, but I loved hearing about the early years of Keith’s musicianship because I think it explains how the Stones got where they are today.

In addition to several previous years of regular guitar practice, Keith says that he spent at least 2 solid years spending most hours of the day with the fledgling members of the Stones listening to records by famous musicians and trying to unravel the music.

2 years!

730 days spent in his flat listening to records, trying to play his guitar like these other guitarists and picking apart the other instruments to figure out how a band comes together to play a great song and what each person needs to do to make that happen.

Imagine spending 2 solid years doing something to the exclusion of just about everything else. Of course you’d get really good. But what’s funny is that you can spend all that time and effort and get really good but still never get recognition because of one distinction that Keith makes:

“There’s some people looking to play guitar and some people looking for a sound. I was looking for a sound.”

But without knowing how to play guitar, without all that time spent learning to play like other people and shaping the band’s output, the Rolling Stones could never have been good enough to unravel the music and form the basics of their sound. The sound that made them world famous. And if they’d stopped at just learning to play like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, they might be the best cover band of all time but they wouldn’t be the Rolling Stones.

It seems all of it is necessary. All the time spent practicing the basics, all the time spent imitating, all the time spent breaking the rules and all the time spent persevering in the face of detractors and believing that their music was important and they were the next big thing.

Practice. Imitation. Breaking Free and Belief. All of it. Together.


Pick up this book. It’s great.

High Drama

Today I finished those travel itineraries I’ve been working on for a month. They took FOREVER, and so little of it was writing. That’s what’s sad. But I finished the last one today and even though I still have a day or two of editing and back and forth before I can upload it, for tonight I’m actually done!

So I went out to get dinner and drove around Tucson with my windows rolled down because the weather is Gorgeous and then I got myself something decadent

Peanut Butter World

And came home to finish this:

Rebecca Wells

Which I’m still loving even though some of the scenes and characterization have gone into the stratosphere and I occasionally think the main character needs a spanking and a reality check. However, it’s great and I’d recommend it.

I’m also in the middle of this

Season 8

So I’ll watch a couple episodes tonight. Speaking of people of who need spankings and reality checks, season 8 of Project Runway has been quite interesting. Outside of the “overworked artists in a pressure cooker” that is the trademark of Bravo reality TV shows, I find a couple of things remarkable (SPOILER ALERT):

1. For the first time in a couple years, Heidi Klum isn’t pregnant and either she’s gotten a new stylist or she’s lost her ability to dress herself because she has worn the most hideous things on this show. I’m fairly certain I saw her in MC Hammer pants on episode 5. AND, if any of the show designers tried to send Heidi’s outfits down the runway, they’d be eliminated.

2. The judges have also lost their minds and are awarding the strangest outfits this year. That black dress that Michael C made that won in episode 6? SO Jersey Shore circa 1989! And sending Casanova home in episode 6 was absurd. That cream outfit was nothing compared to the belly dancing horror he produced in the first episode. They should have eliminated Ivy in episode 6, especially when Nina looked at the camera and said “Ivy’s a seamstress not a designer.”

And lastly

3. Aspiring editors should be watching this show because I’ve never seen a season that so clearly shows the editor’s personal point of view. My favorite moment included Gretchen trash talking everyone on the private camera and then they cut to a tiara on the table that said “Bitch.”

This is why we love Reality TV. At least the drama is real.

So, that was my day: work, ice cream and senseless histrionics. And what have you been up to?