Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. I intended to buy this book in the mental category of "business." I read his book Tipping Point and it was helpful in my business thought processes, so I figured Outliers would be the same way.

The book refutes the common notion that with a lot of hard work, you can do anything. Most of us know that's not true, it's going to take more, but the book takes this a step further and tells you how success is achieved, and it's pretty convincing. A lot of hard work, roughly 10,000 hours of practice according to the research, is what's needed to become great at something, whether it be the piano, computer programming, or what have you. Almost nobody achieves greatness without this initial factor. Two other factors play a roll too, however, as hard work without these factors is often a waste of time, or more likely, the opportunity to do that work won't exist without them.

Opportunity is one factor. Without the right opportunities, people, generally children, aren't given the chance to even do the hard work. For this, Gladwell looks at our selection process in children. Sports and schools use birthdates to initially filter children. If you happen to be very young at the cutoff dates, you are likely to be at the weak end of the curve. Unfortunately, the systems then select for the best early on, meaning that disadvantage in maturity is compounded. The bigger kids get into the better sports leagues; the smarter kids who are more mature by up to a year over their peers get into "gifted" programs early. Those in better leagues get more practice time while those who are "gifted" get superior instruction and are surrounded by more mature peers. By the time they are mature, there's an obvious similarity amongst the standout children; they've been clearly filtered by birthdate, that initial selection criteria and that data reflects that. Hard work from there will generally lead to success, provided the timing is right and the circumstances are ideal.

Circumstances often means coming from a family that is well educated and engaged with the child. The evidence showed that even gifted children in gifted programs are far more likely to fail if their family is poor and not engaged with them. This was the big revelation for me in this book, the fact that my thoughts on child raising were a bit off. My ideas were too traditional, too old school, a bit lower class, a bit less engaged. It turns out those kids who are constantly engaged, shuttled from one activity to another, and coached with their schoolwork, are far more successful than children of equal ability who are left to their own devices. The concern that children are coddled and brittle is far less of a threat than lack of engagement. The common phrase "Why can't kids just be kids anymore?" turns out to be a recipe for failure, or at least an impediment to success. Kids who are left to be kids can't relate to authority, ask for what they need, or work to control their social situations.

For true greatness to emerge, there are often external circumstances that offer unique opportunities. If you were born around 1955 and had access to technology early on, you would be uniquely placed to be a future tech leader, provided you put your time in and were supported at home. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many others were in these unique situations. Titans of industry in the 1850's were similarly lucky, as were Jewish laywers in the 1920's. Behind every success story is hard work, but also unique opportunities and a superior upbringing. When you dig down into success stories, you'll often find these critera for success. If you were wondering what a "boostrap" was, it turns out to be an engaged family who works to get you superior opportunities as a child, so you can then do the 10,000 hours of "pulling up."


  1. And people wonder why Jews and Asians tend to dominate at the top schools - their cultures value education and hard work.

  2. I think that the key to what activities better prepare a child for success isn't simply structure, but the type of involvement.
    Children that engage in active (both physically and mentally) "free play" will discover new ideas, interests, and roles.
    A child who figures out how to join in - or organize - a pick-up game at the local park (or even in the street) is learning about organization, communication, leadership, and followership/teamwork in ways that a child involved in league sports may never pick up. Conversely, the child in league sports will probably have a higher and more consistent level of coaching and mentoring.
    A child engaged in "free play" can try different activities, before deciding on one or two to pursue. A child who is always in structured activities may not be channeled into an activity where their real interests and talents lie (i.e. parents sign child up for basketball every year, never discover the child's talent for soccer).

    Of course, if "free play" means parking in front of the TV/Playstation, then they get neither benefit.

  3. @ rayipsa - but somehow Jews and Asians are not the ones running our country.
    Jewish Presidents?
    Asian Presidents?

    Shouldn't there be a preponderance (rather than a bare presence) of Jewish and Asian Cabinet Members, Leaders in the Congress/Senate, and the Supreme Court?

  4. "Free play" as part of a childhood where parents are engaged and children perform other activities in addition would seem to be a good thing. The idea that kids will be kids and their personal interest and development are "just what makes them who they are." without adult involvement, is a recipe for squandered potential according to the book. I think they key is how parents approach it, whether they're active in the lives of their child or not.

    As for minority leaders and why there are few (now there are more), you could argue that the civil rights movement and other factors have created a unique period in history in which the mainstream public is willing to take a chance on minorities in office. The book would probably argue that no matter how smart or charismatic Obama might be, he could never have been president twenty years ago.

    Obama: Strong family involvement, opportunities that emerged, much hard work, success. The question: Did he put in his 10,000 hours or is he an aberration?

  5. Once the teleprompter is gone, he is an empty suit.

  6. Sorry, I don't buy that. He's clearly intelligent intellectually and socially and has worked hard.

  7. One thing to consider about "successful" children:

    Are they happy?