Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

When one of my students explored the success of the Beatles for her research project, she introduced me to Gladwell’s concept of 10,000 hours.  That’s about the number of hours the Beatles had practiced and performed  together before their first “burst of success.”  From those 10,000 hours, they honed their performance skills, their stamina, their musicality, and their discipline.  Their success was much more than good timing (bringing rock and roll to audiences who were ready for a new era in music) or a lucky break.  Similarly, Bill Gates had about 10,000 in programming/computer fiddling time by the time Microsoft turned its first big profit.  Plenty of people like to point out that he’s brilliant and ambitious, and plenty of my slacker students like to point out that Gates dropped out of college, therefore “anyone who works hard can be a success without a degree.”  Not so.  Bill Gates began his journey to success before 8th grade when he happened to be in one of the only schools with access to computers.  And this is a basic tenet of Gladwell’s interesting and well-written book about outliers (things, people, or phenomena that live outside the normal experience).  In a nutshell, he argues that highly successful people (aka outliers), are a product of much more than innate intelligence, talent, or ambition; more often than not, they are a product of many external circumstances that may have little to do with innate talent or intelligence. A first rate Canadian hockey player may have started out at age 10 simply a bigger kid than anyone on his team (largely due to his January 1 birthday coinciding with the cut-off date for the league).  Because he’s bigger and stronger, he does better on the ice at that young age.  Because he does better, he gets picked for a travel team. This leads to additional playing time which hones his talent which leads to more opportunities which hones his talent.  And the cycle continues until he’s made it to the pros.  End result? More professional hockey players in Canada are born in January than any other month.  The same thing holds true for virtually every sport: whatever month establishes the cut off date in young kids’ leagues usually predicts the most common birth month of the top players 20 years later. Bottom line: because of their birth date, these kids ended up with more opportunities from the get go, and that had a lot more to do with their success than any sort of innate talent. And those opportunities eventually translated into the 10,000 hours concept.  Gladwell traces this pattern through sports, music, and a host of other industries, pointing out how certain factors (birth dates, ethnicity, or cultural norms to name a few) might have much more to do with success than education, training, or hard work.  I found this book fascinating, easy to read, and kind of fun. (nonfiction)

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