Monday, July 16, 2012

Outliers - It takes 10,000 hours to be one.

So often popular business books focus on trends, averages, and generalities. But Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, turned his attention away from the mass in the middle, and instead looked outward to the end of the bell curve. In statistics, the term outlier is used to mean something that lies outside of the expected range of values. Malcolm Gladwell examined what it is that makes that select few wildly successful.

Throughout the book, he asks two questions over and over: "Where are these people from?" and "When did they live?". His research creates compelling arguments that these two factors have as much to do with "unusual achievement" as the people themselves.

In addition to the so-called luck of being born at the right time in the right place, he also concludes that successful people devote a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice before they get really good at something.

In other words, the Beatles didn't just stumble onto the world stage as great performers. They came of age during a time that was ready for their wild rock-n-roll, and they had the chance to hone their craft in Hamburg, Germany playing as much as eight hours a day, seven days a week. When America watched their first performance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964, the Beatles had already logged their prerequisite 10,000 hours of practice that would launch them into greatness.

If Bill Gates had been born a few years earlier, or if he had lived in a different city, the evolution of the personal computer would have taken a completely different path. In 1968, a 13-year-old Bill Gates joined a computer club where he accessed a time-sharing computer with a direct link to a mainframe in downtown Seattle. Gladwell argues that probably no other high school kid in America had access to so much time-share computing. He's probably right on that count since at that time, most university professors were still using punch cards.

Over the next few years, Bill Gates' interest in computers became an obsession. "In one seven-month period in 1971, Gates and his cohorts ran up 1,575 hours of computer time on the ISI mainframe, which averages out to eight hours a day, seven days a week," Gladwell writes. He was already well on his way to 10,000 hours.

Although I agree that the "Where" and "When" Gladwell uncovers are contributing factors in success, and may even be the primary ones, I don't believe he gives enough credit to the individuals. Sure the Beatles were born at the right time and place, but it was this merry band of men who relentlessly played in seedy clubs in Hamburg to perfect their craft. It was Bill Gates' inner geek that drove him to spend so many hours programming. If different people had been in the so-called right time and place, an opportunity for wild success would have no doubt been lost.

With Gladwell's engaging writing, this book is a quick read, and it's not likely one you'll read again. However, his 10,000 hour rule has become a common business reference.
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.