If you work hard, believe in yourself and persevere, you will be successful.
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Also, how familiar is this storyline to you: Person from very humble beginnings makes an invention/starts a small business, has a very hard time at first and almost loses everything but manages to finally rise to the top and becomes very rich and successful.
That’s basically the standard success story that you can find in many, many biographical accounts of successful people. The message these stories carry is usually that success was achieved through hard work and personal sacrifice at times and, more importantly, that therefore anyone can make it.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has the subtitle “The Story of Success”, which may lead you to expect an elaborate version of the standard story mentioned above. On the book’s description on the back cover (“Outliers will transform the way we understand success”) as well as in the introduction, it is quickly made clear that Outliers approaches the subject of success from a completely different angle, though. In short, Gladwell argues that, when it comes to success, circumstances matter. In fact, circumstances that are outside of personal control, like when and where you were born, how your parents raised you and even your family and cultural legacy, may be more important to success than anything you can personally control.
One striking example of this comes from an observation made by Canadian Psychologist Roger Barnsley, concerning Ice Hockey players: The vast majority of Ice Hockey players in advanced leagues in Canada are born in January. Many more are born in February or March, but there are very few players born in the later months of the year. What seems completely arbitrary at first actually has quite a simple cause: The cut-off date for entering any kind of Hockey league in Canada is January 1st. A child that wants to join a Hockey team is assigned to one according to it’s birth date. As an example, a boy who turns 10 years old on January 2nd will be in the same team with other kids who won’t turn 10 till the end of the year. Obviously, a boy who is 10 years old has a huge advantage over a boy who is, say, 9 years and one month old. But if the two have birth dates that bracket around the cut-off date (e.g. December 2nd and January 2nd), they will be playing in the same league. The boy born early in the year will be taller, stronger, have better developed motor-skills etc. He will be seen as especially talented and his chances of being promoted to a more elite team are higher. This puts the players born close to the cut-off date on a fast-track to success from an early age (see also: Matthew Effect).
The book offers many more examples, stories and studies uncovering unexpected and interesting connections between beneficial circumstances and success. All in all, this may be very discouraging. At times you could almost get the impression that we are living in a deterministic world after all. If circumstances matter that much, what’s the point in even trying? If I was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place and without extraordinary opportunities, what’s left for me to do?
Well, there is one chapter in the book describing the so-called 10000-hour rule and it contains a crucial message to everyone trying to “make it”. The ten-thousand-hour rule originates from a study conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues at the Berlin Music Academy. Examining the lifestyles and habits of the musicians the researchers found one fundamental, crucial difference between those considered world-class and those who were merely very good musicians. That difference is the time they had spent playing their instruments. The researchers found that the best musicians simply had been spending more time each day, since longer, practicing with their instrument. No musician was exceptionally good despite not putting in too many hours and no musician was sub-par despite investing many hours into practice. The study seems to suggest that there is no such thing as talent among musicians and the conclusion was that, on average, one must put in about ten-thousand hours of practice in order to reach the skill-level of a world-class expert.
Now, there are two things to keep in mind here: First, it depends on what exactly you do during those ten-thousand hours, i.e. how effective your practice/training is. This is something Dr. Ericsson has also studied and I will elaborate on this in future posts. Secondly, ten-thousand hours is a lot of time. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it: “[…] The people at the very top don’t just work harder or much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”
To give a brief idea of how much ten-thousand hours are: If you deliberately practice a skill for a whopping three hours every day (including weekends), it will still take you almost ten years to get ten-thousand hours under your belt… Still, the findings from Dr. Ercisson’s and similar studies imply that there is truth to the whole “anyone can make it” thing.
Though I picked out this ten-thousand-hour rule as a hopeful example, the main message of Gladwell’s book remains: Circumstances matter and many contributing factors to great success are outside of personal control. This is, to my mind at least, undoubtedly true and I think it’s a message worth spreading. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in personal progress, I believe that humans are incredibly flexible and adaptable and that just because you have been one way for x years does not mean you cannot make a change anymore. I believe that you can positively change almost every aspect of your life, no matter where you come from and where you were born. Outliers does not contradict any of this, but it does show that we might be getting our ideas of what wealth and success mean from the wrong sources. What Outliers shows is that you will not be as successful as the worlds Bill Gates’, Warren Buffets, Richard Bransons etc. unless you are helped along by very beneficial circumstances. It shows that hoping to become like the biggest stars in the world might be too much like hoping to win the lottery, even if we are willing to make a great effort.
It also shows that we could be recruiting many more great athletes if we had more than one age-tier for young players to enter leagues and teams. Will someone get on that, already?
For more great reads, see my Recommended Books page.