altOutliers:  The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2008)

Malcolm Gladwell’s books always turn my mind upside down.  He may not always be right, but he’s always exciting.

What makes a superstar?  What differentiates Bill Gates from the average computer geek, the Beatles from a garage band, the top athletes from the wannabes?  Talent, certainly, and hard work—but Outliers reveals that the most critical factors are often surprising, even random.

The 10,000 hour rule  Talent, we generally believe, is something we are born with.  Intelligence, musical ability, athletic skill:  you either have it, or you don’t.  There is more excuse than truth there, however.  There is a threshold of talent required in any field, but beyond that, experience is the all-important key.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.  It’s the thing that makes you good.

Study after study has shown that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve world-class expertise in any field.  That’s 2,000 hours per year—the equivalent of a full-time job—for five years.  The opportunity to get those 10,000 hours, at the right place and time, makes superstars.  For Bill Gates it was a series of unusual circumstances, beginning in middle school, that gave him access to computers that even most college students did not have.  Before he dropped out of Harvard to make history, Gates had been programming for well over 10,000 hours.

Thanks to a chance encounter—and some illicit incentive—the Beatles found themselves in a set of gigs that required an extraordinarily long performance commitment:  up to eight hours per night, seven days a week.  It was the making of the group.  By the time they came to America in 1964, they had some 1200 live performances under their guitar straps.

Or, as Shinichi Suzuki said, “Skill equals knowledge plus 10,000 times.”  Another gem from the Suzuki world (though I’ve seen it attributed in several ways, most commonly to Vince Lombardi):  Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Only perfect practice makes perfect.  Clearly one must put more into those 10,000 hours than just time.


Inequities  When it comes to sports, astrology would appear to rule:  the month of your birth will make or break you.  Because children’s sports leagues are sorted by age, and because a year’s growth makes a tremendous difference in a child’s physical strength and coordination, the oldest members of a team have a considerable advantage over the youngest.  They appear more talented, and are moved to the better leagues, where they get better coaching, and, significantly, more playing time.  The effect is cumulative, with the “rich” getting richer at each step.

In school, another institution segregated by age, the same effect is devastating to those who start kindergarten less mature than their classmates.  The achievement gap that appears then rarely closes.

At four-year colleges in the United States…students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are underrepresented by about 11.6 percent.

Such systems are tremendously wasteful of talent.  Potential hockey stars—and Nobel Prize winners—are being squandered merely because they were born at the end of the year.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

— Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard


How much genius is necessary?  Christopher Langan is arguably one of the world’s most intelligent people, a genius from infancy—talking at six months, teaching himself to read at three—and he was not only intellectually gifted, but artistically and musically as well.  Yet his dysfunctional family left him without the life skills necessary to succeed in college and become the superstar he might have been.

I include this quote from Langan for Porter, who dreamt solutions to programming problems, and for Janet, whose hand would write the answers to math problems without apparent help from her brain.

I found if I go to bed with a question on my mind, all I have to do is concentrate on the question when I go to sleep and I virtually always have the answer in the morning. … Other times I just feel the answer, and I start typing and the answer emerges onto the page.

Above-average intelligence is a good predictor of academic success, but beyond a certain level, other factors become more important for success.

The psychologist Barry Schwartz recently proposed that elite schools give up their complex admissions process and simply hold a lottery for everyone above the threshold.

In 2008, 27,462 of the most highly qualified high school seniors in the world applied to Harvard University.  Of these students, 2,500 of them scored a perfect 800 on the SAT critical reading test and 3,300 had a perfect score on the SAT math exam.  More than 3,300 were ranked first in the high school class.  How many did Harvard accept?  About 1,600, which is to say they rejected 93 out of every 100 applicants.  Is it really possible to say that one student is Harvard material and another isn’t, when both have identical—and perfect—academic records?  Of course not.  Harvard is being dishonest.  Schwartz is right.  They should just have a lottery.

What about art?  Surely some people are born with musical or artistic talent, and the rest of us left out.  Well, no.  It’s like intelligence.  Yes, there is a range of abilities, but apparently many more of us could be really good if we were willing to put in the time.

Studies done in the 1990’s of violinists at an elite music school, and of amateur and professional pianists revealed the one critical factor in success was simply how much practice time the musicians put in.

[The researchers] couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.  Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.  And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.

This is incredibly good news:  We can all be much greater than we think.  But it comes with important questions (mine, not Gladwell’s):  Are we willing to do the work necessary to achieve greatness?  What must be sacrificed to reach that level?  Is it impossible for a Christian, or a parent, or anyone else with broad responsibilities, to be this good at anything without “gaining the whole world and losing his soul”?  Must the needed time be stolen from more important activities, or can it be reclaimed from wastage?  The average American watches 34 hours of television per week.  If we give up television for six years, could we all become excellent in some area?  Is there a level below the top at which we can all be much better at many things than we are now?  At what level is “good enough” better than perfect for most of us?


The language advantage, part 1  Why were so many Korean Airlines plane crashing?  Intensive analysis revealed no mechanical problems, and no lack of skill on the part of the pilots.  The source of the disasters was something called a Power-Distance Index.  Safe flying requires the cockpit crew to feel free to inform and correct the captain, and the input necessary to keep unusual situations from becoming critical was not coming forcefully enough to the Korean pilots from crews that had bowed to them before the flight.  They key to the airline’s remarkable turnaround?  Insisting that English be the language of the cockpit.

Their problem was that they were trapped in roles dictated by the heavy weight of their country’s cultural legacy.  They needed an opportunity to step outside those cultural roles when they sat in the cockpit, and language was the key to that transformation.  In English, they would be free of the sharply defined gradients [of formality in the Korean language]:  formal deference, informal deference, blunt, familiar, intimate, and plain.  Instead, the pilots could participate in a culture and language with a very different legacy.


The language advantage, part 2

[T]here is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers.  In this domain, the prize for efficacy goes to the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, whose brevity grants residents of Hong Kong a rocketing memory span of about 10 digits.

The number system in English is highly irregular.  Not so in China, Japan, and Korea.  They have a logical counting system.  Eleven is ten-one.  Twelve is ten-two.  Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children.  Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty.  American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don’t reach forty until they’re five.  By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily.  Ask an English-speaking seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty-two in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers (37 + 22).  Only then can she do the math….Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and then the necessary equations is right there, embedded in the sentence.  No number translation is necessary:  It’s five-tens-nine.


Meaningful work  What advantage did the late-18th century New York garment industry confer on the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and how is that related to rice farming in Asia?  Independence, meaningful work, and the conviction that success is a direct result of effort.  (Read the book to find out why.)

[A]utonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward…are, most people agree, the three qualities work has to have if it is to be satisfying.

Virtually every success story we’ve seen in this book so far involves someone or some group working harder than their peers.

Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.

Every four years, an international group of educators administers a comprehensive mathematics and science test to elementary and junior high students around the world.

…  [The students] also have to fill out a questionnaire.  It asks them all kinds of things, such as what their parents’ level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friends are like.  It’s not a trivial exercise.  It’s about 120 questions long.  In fact, it’s so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.

… As it turns out, the average number of items answered on that questionnaire varies from country to country. … [C]ountries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough and focus on answering every single question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.

The rankings aren’t just similar:  They are identical.

[W]e could predict precisely the order in which every country would finish [in a hypothetical Math Olympics] without asking a single math question.


I can’t agree with Gladwell on everything—for one thing, he has far too much admiration for the institution of school.  But Outliers is well-written, easy to read, and challenging.

It is not the brightest who succeed. … Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf.  It is, rather, a gift.  Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

… To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success … with a society that provides opportunities for all.

Those who would create their utopias at the level of society more often create dystopias, it would seem.  But at local, particular levels—school, community, soccer league, and most especially, family—it might be accomplished.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Edit
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The section on the 10,000 hour rule seems to tie in with Cal Newport's book. Don't waste time on multitudes of activities to impress admissions officers. Instead, find what interests you and spend those extra hours there.

Posted by dstb on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 8:08 am

It does, indeed. And it makes sense. It has me wondering, though: Where is the place of the generalist? Sometimes I think we, as a society, specialize too much. Is there a way to be much better than we are at many things? Professionally, I know that breakthroughs are often made by people who can see the larger picture, who can bring insight from many angles to a situation. Personally, I find it sad that we depend so much on others to mow our lawns, bake our bread, fix our plumbing, teach our children, etc. I'd like to see us competent in many fields. Is it possible to be jack-of-many-trades while master-of-one-or-two?

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 8:54 am

Another question might be: What are we practicing? Someone once said he could tell where a man's heart was by looking at his checkbook. That may be out of date, but perhaps we can tell where our hearts are by looking at where we are putting in our 10,000 hours. Am I practicing writing, or genealogy research, or communicating, or ... sitting largely immobile in front of a glowing screen? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 9:43 am

On the language advantage issue: if I ask a Gambian in Mandinka "How is your family?" I will always get the standard rote answer "they're there." If I ask English, I might get a real answer like "My brother has malaria."

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 1:04 pm

It seems to me that despite all his interesting books, Gladwell's solution is not new: he just wants to improve the meritocracy we're already after. I don't think a perfect meritocracy is possible.* There's always an element of grace, of the undeserved good, in our lives. It should be part of our considerations when thinking about improving society; it should lead us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to give grace as freely as we have received it.

*If I had the time, I'd try to find my Ivan Illich book to find the quote about the perfect meritocracy being hell.

Posted by Stephan on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 3:55 pm