Why you should read this book
We often define success as an individual achievement. But have you ever thought that a person’s upbringing, culture, and tradition are a big factor in his or her success? In this book, you will learn about the importance of opportunity and 10,000 hours of practice. An outlier is someone successful and extraordinary. If you want to become one, you should read this book.
Who should read this
Aspiring musicians, artists, writers, athletes, etc; Anyone who wants to excel in his or her field
About the author
Malcolm Gladwell is a trusted journalist and best-selling author. He has been writing for The New Yorker since 1996. Gladwell had published a total of 6 books. Most of them made it to the New York Times bestseller list.
What is an outlier? An outlier is a person who has done more than the ordinary. They stand out from the crowd. They have reached the peak of success. The outliers are the geniuses, rock stars, athletes, business tycoons, and billionaires of the world. What is their secret?
We always admire successful people. We are inspired by stories of rags to riches. We are interested to know them. What is their lifestyle? What is their personality? Do they have special talents? We think that these qualities explain their success. But there is a bigger picture that we are missing.
In this book, we will find that there is something wrong with how we define success. We only see it as personal. We think that individuals who succeed did everything on their own. It is their abilities that led them to where they are.
However, is pure talent enough? What about upbringing? What about the people who helped them? What about the culture and society they belong to? By reading the stories of outliers, we will uncover the answers to these questions. We will have a new perspective on success.
Hockey is a very popular sport in Canada. Boys learn to play starting from kindergarten. There is a hockey league every year at school. But how are the best players chosen for the national team? It is noticeable that the best hockey players were born from January to March. How did this happen?
Here’s the secret. The coaches choose the boys who are older in their class. That is to say that if the boy is born in December, he would not be chosen to play for the team. This is because the older boy is more mature physically. The gap in months presents a huge difference in their bodybuilding. This selection happens for boys at age 9 to 10.
The boys born earlier will be trained by the coach. They will practice three times more than the average. By the time they reach their teens, the boys are already experts at playing hockey. And they will move on to the big leagues.
This is also the selection process for other sports. The age difference is also valued in the Olympics. The talents of children born in the later part of the year are being ignored.
Younger children are often discouraged from the sport. But if the same opportunity is given to them, their talents would also be honed. They would also be successful athletes.
The national hockey team of Canada became outliers because of coincidence. It so happened that they are born earlier and more physically mature. The opportunity for success has been given to them. It led from one opportunity to another.
We are a society that gives more advantages to those who are successful. More doors would open to them and further elevate their status. Meanwhile, those who fail are dismissed. We look up so much to individual achievement. We, as a society, overlook the role that we play in determining who gets the opportunity and who does not.
“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”In the 1990s, a group of psychologists conducted a study at the Academy of Music in Berlin. They want to know how much talent and practice determine success. Do violinists excel because of innate talent? Or is it because of practice?
The psychologists observed that the more hours the students spend in practice, the more they become better at playing the violin. As the children grow older, they spend more time practicing. At twenty years old, the best violinists have already spent 10,000 hours.
The same study was conducted on pianists. Amateurs have only spent 2,000 hours since childhood. But the professionals increased practice hours every year. By age 20, they have played a total of 10,000 hours. The psychologists found that there are no “naturals”. There exists no musician who became the best by practicing lesser hours.
To be world-class in anything, you have to spend 10,000 hours. Other studies have proven this magic number. From musicians to athletes, to writers, to criminal masterminds, it takes 10,000 hours to be on top. It appears that our brain needs 10,000 hours to achieve expertise and mastery.
But the thing is, not everybody can afford to spend 10,000 hours. It is not possible to be achieved on your own. As a child, you need to have supportive parents. As an adult, you need spare time. But if you are poor and you have to work, you would not have enough time for practice. To have 10,000 hours is an extraordinary opportunity.
Take, for example, Bill Gates. He has been programming since he was in 8th grade. That is a special opportunity because it was in the 1960s. Only rich people can afford to own a computer at that time.
The father of Bill Gates is a lawyer while his mother is also from a rich family. They enrolled him in an elite school in Seattle called Lakeside. It was one of the few schools in 1968 which have a computer club. From 8th grade to high school, Bill Gates was able to practice programming nonstop.
When Bill Gates dropped out of college to start Microsoft, he has already spent more than 10,000 hours. He is a brilliant programmer and entrepreneur. But Bill Gates was able to have that unusual opportunity. As Bill Gates said, “I was very lucky.”
To be an outlier, you need to have that special opportunity. You need to be given that lucky break. If you have an extraordinary talent, you also need an extraordinary opportunity to succeed.
“Lift your heads and look at the image of a man who rose from nothing, who owed nothing to parentage or patronage…” That is what Robert Winthrop said when he unveiled the statue of Benjamin Franklin. But do outliers rise from nothing?
We are obsessed with autobiographies of successful people. They all have humble beginnings. But they conquered every challenge and achieved success. They did it of their unique abilities. What we don’t see is that great leaders like Franklin are beneficiaries of opportunities and advantages.
Outliers owe their success to their parents, patrons, and the community they belong to. They owe it to the legacies of their ancestors and their culture. If we want to know how a person succeeded, it is not enough to learn about his qualities. We should also ask when and where did he grow up.
Take, for example, the Beatles. Before becoming popular, they had a special opportunity in Hamburg, Germany. It was in 1960. At that time, the Beatles was only a high school band.
Hamburg was full of strip clubs then. The rock bands were invited to attract more customers. There was a club called Bruno which always featured bands from Liverpool, England. The owner Philip Norman wanted the bands to play nonstop for hours.
As John Lennon said about their experience in Hamburg, “We got better and get more confidence…We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, get ourselves over.”
The Beatles would play in Hamburg clubs for eight hours straight every night. They developed their creativity, stamina, and discipline. In Liverpool, they would only play the same songs in one-hour sets. But in Hamburg, the Beatles had to play different versions. They performed rock and also jazz to cover for eight hours.
Over only 18 months, the Beatles performed 270 nights in Hamburg. When they became popular in 1964, the band has already played live 1,200 times. That is what set them apart from all the other rock and roll bands. They had a lot of practice with a live audience.
Hamburg was the Beatles’ special opportunity. They became a beneficiary of the culture and community of Hamburg, Germany. As Philip Norman said, “They were no good on stage when they went there and they were very good when they came back…they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”
Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller
Historians listed the 75 wealthiest persons in the history of humanity. They started from the times of pharaohs and Cleopatra. They looked for the richest people from all over the world. Surprisingly, 20% of them came from only one generation in America.
Andrew Carnegie was on the list. He was born in 1835. J.P. Morgan was born in 1837 while John Rockefeller was born in 1839. There are eleven other Americans out of the 75. They are all born from 1830 to 1840. All of them are incredibly rich.
Is it a mere coincidence? What could be the reason behind this? If we study closely, we will find out that from the 1860s to 1870s, the economy of America had its biggest transformation. It was the era when Wall Street developed. The manufacture of steel started and railroads were constructed. American economy shifted from traditional to modern.
The outliers on the wealthiest list were all at the right age for this economic boom. Those born in the 1840s are too young. Those born in the 1820s are too old. The ages of Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller were just right. They became beneficiaries of their country’s economic growth.
These wealthy men have talent and vision. But just like the hockey players, they had that special opportunity. They came to dominate the world of finance and the steel industry. They were born in the right place and at the right time.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs
Let’s take a look at the outliers of Silicon Valley. Their special opportunity came in the year 1975. It was when the personal computer Altair 8800 was released. The older computer models were expensive and very large. But Altair 8800 only costs $397. It can be assembled and used at home. Anyone can own it.
The era of personal computers started in 1975. If you are too old or too young at the time, you would not have the special opportunity. If you are born after 1958, you’re still in high school. But if you’re born before 1952, you’re probably already employed at IBM.
In 1975, IBM was already an established company in Silicon Valley. It earns billions by producing mainframe computers. Those old enough to work are already there. They are already making a nice living. But they belong to the old paradigm. They did not have the special opportunity.
The right age for the personal computer revolution is to be born around 1955. This generation was straight out of college in 1975. They had the opportunity to explore the possibilities of the modern computer. Who are the software billionaires born in 1955?
Bill Gates was born on October 28, 1955. His Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was born on January 21, 1956. They studied in Lakeside together. They are best friends and members of the Lakeside computer club.
Steve Jobs was born on February 24, 1955. Jobs was not from a rich family like Gates. He was adopted. But he was raised in Mountain View, California. It is the very center of Silicon Valley.
Jobs grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by Hewlett-Packard engineers. He attended forums by HP scientists. He bought electronic spare parts in the flea markets of Mountain View.
When Steve Jobs was 12 years old, he found Bill Hewlett’s number in the phonebook. He called the co-founder of HP to ask for spare parts. Jobs did not only acquire the parts. He landed a summer job at HP.
This is not to say that all business tycoons in the U.S. were born in 1955 and the 1830s. But there is a trend in their stories. We were so focused on individual achievement that we did not see the pattern.
These successful people had a special opportunity. They seized it and made the best out of it. They were born at a time when society was able to reward hard work. What they achieved was not only because of their effort. The world they grew up in played a big part in their success.
Asians and Math
Why do Asians excel in math? You can think of a lot of possible answers. But it is hard to guess something deeply embedded in their culture. Asians are outliers in math because of their cultural legacy. They have logical number-naming and counting systems.
The number of words in Chinese is very short. 7 is “qi” and 4 is “si”. In English, they are seven and four. It is easier to memorize the numbers in Chinese because they are shorter. They are faster to pronounce.
We count eleven, twelve, and thirteen in English. Why do we say sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen but not one teen, tween, and thirteen? For Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, the numbers are just ten-one for eleven, ten-two for twelve, two-tens for twenty, and two-tens-one for twenty-one.
The number of names in English is irregular. But for Asians, the numbers are simple and easier to add. To solve 37 + 22, an English first grader must first convert thirty-seven and twenty-two to numbers. But for Asians, it is quicker to add three-tens-seven plus two-tens-two. The equation is already there. The answer is five-tens-nine.
The Asian number system is straightforward. Asian children can learn to count, memorize and calculate faster than Western children. Even understanding a fraction is easier. 3/5 is three-fifths in English. In Chinese, they say “out of five parts, take three”. A small child can figure out the fraction in the words. The numerator is already distinguished from the denominator.
In English, the “decade” comes first for numbers like twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three onwards. But for the “teens”, the unit number comes first like in fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. Early on, Western children are disenchanted. “Math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.”
Because of the simple and logical number system, Asian children can enjoy learning math. They can solve problems easier and faster. The advantage is already in the numbers themselves.
It is easy to assume that Asians are simply talented in math. “But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different: that being good at math may also be rooted in a group’s culture.”
The Chinese have been cultivating rice for thousands of years ago. Their technique in cultivating rice was also learned by other Asian countries. The process of rice cultivation is tedious. It is not like wheat where you just have to clear the field and begin to plow.
The farmers have to build rice paddies. The rice paddy must have enough water supply. The farmers make channels and dikes for irrigation. The rice seedlings will be planted on soft mud. For fertilizer, the Chinese use human manure and other organic materials.
Rice cultivation is a family affair. The family, relatives, and friends of the farmer would help. They would make sure the rice seedlings are carefully planted. When the rice is already ripe, they would all harvest together.
The rice paddy is only small. Its size is just like one hotel room. On one farm, there could be 2 or 3 rice paddies. One Chinese village can support itself using only 450 acres of land. In America, 450 acres is just one farm owned by one family.
That is the striking difference between Western and Eastern agriculture. The farms in Midwestern America are huge. This is because they use machines. There is less human effort. But the machines enable the farmers to produce more crops.
The Chinese and other Asians do not have equipment. To increase their yield, they invest more in time and effort. The rice paddy is small but the farmers use it diligently. They ensure the quality of the rice. To have more crops, the farmers have to work harder.
Moreover, European farmers are idle during winter. Since they cannot plant, they mostly sleep. Graham Robb, a historian, wrote that “peasant life in a country like France, even well into the nineteenth century, was essentially brief episodes of work followed by long periods of idleness.”
The Chinese farmers, meanwhile, never stop working. In the dry season, they make and sell bamboo hats or baskets. They repair the rice paddies. They make dried bean curd and tofu. The Chinese busy themselves with another livelihood when it’s not farming season.
When spring comes, the Chinese farmer will be in the fields again early at dawn. Cultivating rice is 20 times harder than planting corn or wheat. The Chinese farmer works in the rice paddies for a total of 3,000 hours every year.
The hard work of the farmer is reflected in the Chinese proverbs. “In winter, the lazy man freezes to death.” “Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.” The last one is very different from the Russian proverb, “If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.”Eastern agriculture is more diligent and practical.
The Rice Paddies represent the hard work of Asians. They were able to conquer poverty and the challenges of nature. Hard work is part of their cultural legacy. They bring this quality anywhere they go.
We now know that pure talent is not enough to succeed. One must have that special opportunity to practice that talent. We also learned the importance of upbringing. Outliers do not come from anything. The place and time they grew up in are always part of who they are.
It is easy to explain success through the qualities of the individual. But those qualities are also inherited from the culture he belongs to. What we may learn from these stories of success is to make use of what we have. If we are given that opportunity or advantage, we must couple it with hard work. In that way, we can also be outliers.