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Monday, December 10, 2012

Outliers and Success

Outliers: The Story of Success is a book written by Malcolm Gladwell in which he examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. His primary thesis is what he calls the "10,000-Hour Rule," namely that the key to success in any field is practicing it for a total of around 10,000 hours. In other words, if you want to become a great rock band (e.g., The Beatles), you need to play and practice at 10,000 hours together; if you want to become a great computer programer (e.g., Bill Gates), you need to work with computers and software for at least 10,000 hours. According to Gladwell, The Beatles got their 10,000 hours in by performing live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, and Gates got his 10,000 hours in after he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13 and spent 10,000 hours programming on it. Without that access, Gladwell states that Gates would still be "a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional," but that he probably wouldn't be worth US$50 billion. How does one get 10,000 hours in? By putting in 20 hours a week for 10 years. That's how.

I don't know if there's something magical about 10,000 hours, but what I do know is that success in any field requires lots of practice. Successful people are built not born. While innate ability (e.g., high IQ or athletic prowess) matters,
What really matters is the ability to get better and better gradually over time. As K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University has demonstrated, it's deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously honing their craft. As Ericsson has noted, top performers devote five times more hours to become great than the average performers devote to become competent... 
John Hays of Carnegie Mellon studied five hundred masterworks of classical music. Only three of them were published within the first ten years of the composer's career. For all the rest, it took a decade of solid, steady work before they could create something magnificent. The same general rule applies to Einstein, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Freud, and Martha Graham...
In 2009 Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov, and Morten Sorenson completed a study called 'Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?'... There is no one personality style that leads to corporate or any other kind of success. But they found that the traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytical thoroughness, and the ability to work long hours. 
When it comes to athletics, I think certain caveats need to be noted, however. As I have noted in previous posts, there is overwhelming evidence that playing a single sport year round can be harmful (see e.g., "Overuse, Not Curveballs, Hurts Young Arms" "Kids and Sports: How Young is Too Young? How Much is Too Much?" "Aristotle, Virtue, and the Youth Sports-Injury Epidemic"); thus, athletes, in particular young athletes, need to get their 10,000 hours in various ways (e.g., playing multiple sports) so that muscles that get a lot of work playing one sport get some time off while playing another. Otherwise, they run the risk of overuse and having their playing careers end far sooner than they would like.

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