The Outliers: A Review & Tips

by Brad Isaac on March 8, 2009

What does it take to be successful?

outliers Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell is an interesting perspective on genius, work ethic and what it takes to make it in the world.

Before reading, I had skimmed the many reviews on Amazon and it resonated with many readers and offended others. Since I enjoyed Blink and The Tipping Point I decided to pick up a copy.

The revelations in this book are as intriguing as in his former works, however since this is a Goal Setting site and the book claims to be “the story of success,” it seems like a good match, eh?

Are you an outlier?

I’ll get straight to the point.  Gladwell’s thesis is we cannot succeed on our own. You can have all the talent in the world.  But it is going to take other people and some subtle advantages (luck) helping you along the way for you to achieve high levels of success.

In Outliers, Gladwell runs through the some historical geniuses we think of when we think of the term genius. He details Mozart, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Oppenheimer and other physicists I’ve never heard of – All of them with great minds.

Talent is not enough

Some of the geniuses made it big such as Einstein. Others did not reach their full potential.  He runs through obscure names such as Chris Langan, whom we may never hear about outside the book itself. Langan, although having a brilliant mind, was not an Outlier. For Gladwell’s theory is the people who have achieved high levels of success do have above average intelligence and natural talent in their chosen fields. However genius and talent are not enough.  Once you become “smart enough”, the difference between your talent and the genius talent is a small cause in determining your overall success.  Instead it is having the “Outlier” trait which becomes more important.

Outliers Get “Lucky Breaks”

He points out that each of the famous successful people were helped in one way or another along the way. Maybe they were born at an opportune time in history, or the right mentor took a liking to them, or perhaps they were born to wealthy parents in the “right” part of the world. Gladwell says these were advantages the famously successful have that others simply do not have. The unsuccessful geniuses around us are not helped and possibly hindered by their random birthright.

For example, Bill Gates, by the sheer lucky timing of his birth date, his living in Seattle and a “rotary club” membership held by a parent, gave him his Outlier status.  It was these advantages that provided him with the time, but more importantly the opportunity to program computers before computers were available to the general public.  Thus, he had a head start on computers that almost nobody else in the world had.  If the tide of personal computing never took off, we’d never have heard about him.

10,000 Hours of Practice Makes Perfect

Gladwell’s other theory is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of hard practice in a chosen field to become a master in that field.

Since Gates was obsessed with the computer, and who isn’t, he spent every free minute he could hacking in the computer lab.  His head start gave him plenty of time to reach the 10,000 hour mark before anyone else could catch up.  Gladwell, also breaks down the 10,000 hour rule to explain Mozart’s success, the Beatles music popularity and Oppenheimer’s rise in physics.

When I read his 10,000 rule theory, I was both reassured and disappointed.  I was reassured in knowing much of what I knew about lasting success was true – that it takes a lot of hard work.  But disappointed I didn’t know the 10,000 hour rule earlier in my life.

Would I have chosen differently if I knew a day 15-20 years ago started my 10,000 hour journey?

How many pursuits have you put 10,000 hours of sheer effort and practice into? For me, it’s probably server administration. I’ve put more time into architecting and maintaining networks than probably anything else in my life. And that’s probably why I am highly sought out as a network admin when sometimes I’d rather be a famous author or computer programmer.

The 10,000 hour rule is reassuring because if you have talent in an area — be it computer programming, guitar playing or surgery, all you have to do is put in that 10,000 hours. And I don’t think he means just at a job reading websites, but in heavy practice for those 10,000 hours.

Gladwell points out that getting 10,000 hours in is difficult.  For most of us it means early mornings and late nights. For example, you could practice 3 hours each day 5 days a week.  How long would it take you to be successful?  Twelve years!  That’s a huge commitment!

Yes, it is a commitment.  But It means mastery is within all our grasp. If you are reading this blog you probably have higher than average intelligence or you have a talent in some area you are aiming to improve. Well there’s your secret.  Beg, borrow or steal those 10,000 hours of practice and you can become an international expert.

Bottom Line

The Outliers an interesting study that is well worth reading. It is not a motivational or how to be successful work as the title suggests. I do have some squabbles with some of Gladwell’s comparisons between successful geniuses and non-successful geniuses.  And I think he overlooked the overriding skill non-outliers can develop that can perhaps make them Outliers.  But if you liked Blink and The Tipping Point, The Outliers will not disappoint.

What can we take away from The Outliers? I’ll save that for my next post. Subscribe to my RSS feed so you don’t miss it.

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March 9, 2009 at 8:16 pm

I’ve just added this book to my wish list based on your recommendation.

I had never thought about the 10,000-hour rule, but that does make a lot of sense. If someone has a full-time job doing something that also happens to be their hobby, then this can be achieved in about 3 years. I’m assuming 40-hours/week on the job and then 25-hours/week as a hobby which is about 3,380 hours a year. A lot of computer programmers and designers do this sort of thing to ramp up their skills quickly–it’s what I did, now that I think about it.

The first thought that came to my mind after reading your post wasn’t about job skills at all though; it was about marriage. I don’t know if Gladwell mentions this in the book or not. I’m going to guess that most couples are so busy with other things that they probably only share 1-2 hours of quality time bonding emotionally, mentally, and physically with their mate each week (note that I hope I’m VERY wrong in this assumption). Even if we say it’s 10-hours per week for most couples, then it will still take 20 years to become a master at your marriage. Is it any wonder that 50% of marriages end in divorce? My wife and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage in a few months I can attest to the fact that things get better over time and I’m looking forward to seeing how great things can be when we celebrate our 50th anniversary after another 30 years of learning about each other!

Brad Isaac March 13, 2009 at 9:50 am

Ricky, you make a good point about marriage. I’ve heard the same about most young couples spend something like 1 hour per week talking to each other. 1 hour! That’s far too little time.

To solve this problem, my wife and I work out together – by taking 1 hour walks 2-3 times per week and working out at the gym together. Also, our kids are finally old enough where we might enjoy a dinner out alone occasionally.

BTW. Congratulations on your 20 year anniversary! Good job!

March 17, 2009 at 6:25 pm

When i was a little kid i had a friend who was obsessed with his soccer ball. He always kicked it and even get to sleep with it. Now he is a professional player. So i think that the 10.000 hours practice theory is plain true.

Pino | Profumi donnas last blog post..Le dodici migliori marche del 2008.

March 19, 2009 at 5:25 am

it says talent is not everything, to be a genial u need to have the talent be smart and knowing of how some luck and the right moments to use. But practice is in important thing too , to learn always something new and become better.

March 20, 2009 at 12:00 am

I will with out a doubt be getting this book soon.
Great post and blog :)

Allen Loomiss last blog post..Ten Steps to Self Confidence

March 23, 2009 at 5:40 am

Well that’s true – there are many talented people who are far from succesful. And the main reason behind is the lack of luck – without meeting right people and taking right chances you will never achieve the success you deserve.

April 28, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Practice practice and practice. I agree with Gladwell’s terms. But 10`000 – it’s about 1250 work days!

Breaks Mans last blog post..2009 | Alan Stenback – Red Skye

Austin Wisniewski April 17, 2010 at 5:39 pm

I have to read this book and gave a book report on it i hope its a good book

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