Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, one of the most provocative cultural thinkers today, who has a recent book called Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell found that the usual explanations – that extraordinary achievers are much smarter and talented than the rest of us – are insufficient. There are plenty of smart, gifted people who aren’t particularly successful. What Gladwell found by talking to Microsoft founder Bill Gates and others is that successful geniuses aren’t born… they’re created. In other words, their innate qualities aren’t the only reason they reached the top. The reason is a mix of fortunate factors…
Aren’t talent and high IQ vital for great success?
Extensive research shows that they matter only to a point. For instance, once you have an IQ of 130, more points don’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. A scientist with an IQ of 130 is as likely to win a Nobel Prize as one who has an IQ of 180.
So what’s the crucial factor?
One of the most significant factors is what scientists call the “10,000-hour rule.” When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field – for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon – we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years. The brain takes that long to assimilate all it needs to know to achieve true mastery.
Take the case of Bill Gates. When he was 13, his father, a wealthy lawyer in Seattle, sent him to a private school that happened to have one of the only computers in the country where students could do real-time programming. At age 15, Gates heard that there was a giant mainframe computer at the nearby University of Washington that was not being used between 2:00 am and 6:00 am. So Gates would get up at 1:30 in the morning, walk a mile, then program for four hours. All told, during the course of seven months in 1971, Gates ran up 1,575 hours of computer time, which averages out to about eight hours a day, seven days a week. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own computer software company, he had been programming nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past 10,000 hours. In fact, there were only a handful of people in the entire world who had as much practice as he had.
How young do you have to be when you put in those 10,000 hours? Is there any hope for adults in their 50s or beyond?
The interesting thing is that the age at which you devote 10,000 hours doesn’t seem to matter. Sure, the freshness and exuberance and freedom from responsibility that you have as a youth are helpful. But what’s necessary is the application of time and effort.
Putting in many years late in life and being successful are real and achievable phenomena. For instance, the artist Cézanne didn’t have his first one-man show until age 56. Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House series of children’s books, published her first novel at age 65. Colonel Sanders began his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in his late 60s.
What other factors open the door to great achievements?
The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our ancestors often shape the patterns of our achievements in astonishing ways. For instance, I’ve always been fascinated that so many math geniuses are Asian – disproportionately so. Students from Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan score much higher than students in America or Europe on country-by-country – ranked math tests.
Asians aren’t born with some calculus or algebra gene that makes them excel, but they do have a different kind of built-in advantage. Children in Asian countries have more persistence than their Western counterparts.
Research has attributed this greater willingness to stick with tough problems to a cultural legacy of hard work that stems from the cultivation of rice. Growing rice demands constant attention. Asian survival depended on working relentlessly and exalting the virtues of patience and dedication. Cultures that believe in working relentlessly don’t give their children long summer vacations.
The Japanese school year is 243 days long, and the South Korean school year, 220 days. The US school year is, on average, 180 days long.
Doesn’t luck play a big role?
Luck is too simple a term. Great success usually comes from a steady accumulation of advantages and a confluence of circumstances. For example, timing is important. Extraordinary achievement is possible if you have just the right skills when massive changes in our culture present opportunities. The election of President Obama is a perfect example of this. Another is the inordinate number of multibillionaires in the US today that were all born between 1953 and 1955 — people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple Inc.) and Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google).
Because they were all in their early 20s when the computer revolution hit in 1975. The early 20s is the optimal age to be during the early part of a revolution. If you were still in high school in 1975, you were too young to start a computer company. If you were in the workforce and had a mortgage and a family, you weren’t going to quit a good job to take a risk.
How can you predict if someone will be a great success?
Studies have shown that intelligence is a poor predictor of how well people will do in a highly complex job. The best approach is to let them do the job for a while. In other words, you are better off using your time, money and energy establishing an apprenticeship system and observing which one of multiple candidates does the best than trying to predict who will do well.