Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Part 1, Chapter 2 : Opportunity (The 10,000-Hour Rule) | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • For years psychologists have believed "[a]chievement is talent plus preparation." However, the more they study achievement, the more they realize how small a role talent plays. Preparation, or practice, is much more important.
  • In the early 1990s Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson led a study about the role practice plays in developing musical talent. He learned the best violinists had 10,000 hours of practice under their belts by age 20. Students in the next-best group, who were classified as "good" violinists, had about 8,000 hours of practice by age 20. Those who intended to teach instead of play professionally had only about 4,000 hours of practice. Ericsson's research suggests the difference is not someone's ability, but how hard someone works.
  • This and other studies point to what is now known as the 10,000-Hour Rule: to master a complex task, someone must practice for 10,000 hours.
  • This idea is true even for the hockey players from Chapter 1. Older players are selected for elite teams because they are bigger and more physically mature. Being on an elite team means more practice, which means the older children (those born in January, February, or March) will hit 10,000 hours of practice well before their November- and December-born counterparts.
  • Ten thousand hours is a lot of time, roughly the equivalent of 416 24-hour days. Practicing that much requires encouragement and financial support. Gladwell says most people can achieve 10,000 hours only if they are in a special program, like an elite hockey team, or if they get a "special opportunity."
  • Bill Joy is a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, which Gladwell calls "one of the most critical players in the computer revolution." Joy rewrote computer languages UNIX and Java as well as much of the software used to access the Internet. During high school in the early 1970s, he figured he would be a biologist or a mathematician. That changed when he stumbled upon the University of Michigan's Computer Center in 1971. At a time when computers were a rarity, the University of Michigan "had one of the most advanced computer science programs in the world." Joy began teaching himself to program during his freshman year and kept going. While it's true he had the smarts and the skills to do well at programming, it was the 8–10 hours per day spent in the computer lab that made him into an expert. Between beginning college and his second year in graduate school, Joy had accumulated 10,000 hours of programming practice.
  • The rock group the Beatles had a similar experience. All very talented musicians, they didn't hit their stride until after performing for 8–10 hours at a time, seven days a week, at strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany. They practiced this way for a year and a half, performing an estimated 270 times. By the time their "first burst of success" came in 1964, they had performed 1,200 times, which is more than most bands perform in their entire careers. The Beatles's biographer Philip Norman says of Hamburg, "It was the making of them."
  • Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and one of the richest people in the world, was also afforded a series of opportunities that led him to become an expert programmer. His first opportunity came from a computer terminal funded by the Mother's Club at his private high school. This chance led to a friend's parent offering computer time in exchange for testing new software. By the time Gates was 16, he was programming 20 to 30 hours a week. That experience got him a job at the local power station, programming payroll software when he was just a senior in high school. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year, he had more practice programming than nearly anyone else his age, and it was all because of the opportunities of which he took advantage.
  • Sometimes opportunity is created by the era of someone's birth. Of the 75 wealthiest humans in history, 14 were born between 1831 and 1840. They came of age just as the Industrial Revolution began in the 1860s. J.P. Morgan (b. 1837), John D. Rockefeller (b. 1839), Andrew Carnegie (b. 1835), and Marshall Field (b. 1834) were all in the right place at the right time, young enough to embrace the changes in American industry and old enough to take advantage of it.
  • In Silicon Valley, the bedrock of the computing industry, the magic birth date is the mid-1950s. Personal computers first became available in 1975. Those old enough to already be working in the computer industry weren't much interested in (or didn't have time to explore) personal computing. People born between 1953 and 1956, however, had plenty of time to mess around with the new technology in their late teens and early 20s. The proof is in the numbers: Bill Gates was born in 1955, Paul Allen (cofounder of Microsoft and Gates's childhood best friend) was born in 1953, Steve Jobs (founder of Apple) was born in 1955, and Bill Joy was born in 1954. All have made enormous and lasting impacts in the industry.
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