On the path to exceptional achievements

Sunday, January 11, 2009 - 10:57 pm
By Colin

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, has some interesting anecdotes illustrating his ideas about how to explain exceptionally successful people. 

These people would be outliers, they sit far outside the bell curve of normal achievement.  Gladwell looks at various sets of outliers, such as professional hockey players, pc/software industry moguls, the robber barons of the industrial revolution, iconic musicians, etc, and finds that there are very specific circumstances that increase the odds of success for certain sets of people.

Here are a few essential circumstances for success:

  • World class mastery of any subject requires about 10000 hours of practice, whether it’s hockey, programming, music, whatever.  Professional hockey players, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, the Beatles, Mozart, all had ten thousand hours of practice in their fields before becoming successful.  They got a lot of their practice in as teenagers.  It’s tough to get ten thousand hours in starting from scratch as an adult.  So, if you’re still looking for something to be good at, think about what you always gravitated towards as a kid, and what skill that may have sharpened.
  • In academics and athletics, being more mature (older, basically) at the beginning of the school year or practice season has been statisticaly proven to give kids an advantage.  The cutoff date for hockey leagues in Canada is January 2.  Kids born closest after January 2 have a size and strength advantage.  This explains why most Canadian professional hockey players are born in the first half of the year.  A similar advantage accrues in academics to children born just after a school system’s cutoff date.  So parents aiming for high acheivers, plan your conceptions accordingly.
  • Advantages accrue to those already advantaged.  This is a sad one.  Can be rather defeating if dwelled on too long.   Basically, those kids deemed more talented will be bumped up to the A league, the gifted and talented class, the magnet school, whatever.  Makes sense.  We’re not going to give Fullbright scholarships to those needing the most help, we’re going to give them to those deemed most capable of acheiving great things with them.  So, if you’ve got a talent, get it nurtured early, so you can pull ahead with it.
  • The culture you were brought up in can be more determining of success than your IQ.  Gladwell compares two well known geniuses, and explains that the one who was not successful as an adult (he is known simply for having an incredibly high IQ) was disadvantaged by his anti-social, poor upbringing.  Middle and upper class families tend to socialize their children in a way that better prepares them to excel.  The children learn early on to expect to discuss their ideas, to defend their positions verbally, and to feel entitled to opportunities.  Kind of another take on the culture of poverty line of thought.
  • Asians are good at math not because they have bigger math brains, but because their languages’ number naming systems are more logical.  English names for the teen numbers don’t make logical sense to a kid learning them for the first time:  eleven, twelve, thirteen..  where’s the pattern in the first three?   Also, you learn the teens, putting the number closest to the decimal point first, and then as soon as you get out of the teens, the number in the second decimal position comes first:  twenty one, twenty two, etc.  In Chinese, numbers past ten are simply named like: two tens one, or one ten three, names in which you practically learn to add as you are learning the names.  In Romance languages, there’s a fair bit of rote memorization of number names, and then assigning values to those names.  In Chinese, apparently, you learn ten number names, and all subsequent number names are just the mathematical expression of values.  Makes for pretty intuitive learning, and gives kids growing up with such a system a big head start.
  • Timing.  Being born at the right time for a particular cultural shift.  A lot of the Silicone Valley software moguls were born in the first half of the 1950s.  This is not coincidence, it meant that when they were in their early twenties, out of high school, and before they were committed to families, a fair number of people, in the early 70s, had the opportunity to mess around with teletype computing, home computer kits, etc.   Similar birth timing story for Jewish lawyers who became New York champions of corporate takeover battles in the 80s: lucky to be born at the right time in the 1930s.  Similar story for the barons of the industrial revolution, born in the 1830s.


Gladwell uses a fair number of data sets and makes examples of real people who were blessed with fortuitous timing and who took the opportunities that came their way.  It all seems plausible, and its a fun read.  The nice thing about the book is that it doesn’t depress you, it kind of gets you thinking about what happy circumstances you can make the most of.

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