Outliers: The Story of Success is one of my favorite books of all-time. I have since been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell after this book. Through case studies, Gladwell argues that being an outlier (a person who doesn’t fit into our normal understanding of achievement) is not an accident. Outliers, according to Gladwell, result from hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities.
Gladwell has many case studies in the book and I highly suggest reading the entire book. Nevertheless, I want to focus on Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, a compelling idea that has become ubiquitous in talks about success and skill acquisition.
Before The Beatles became famous, they have put in the work. Gladwell cites that The Beatles played 8 hours every day for seven days a week in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles were still an upcoming band and they were invited to play in Hamburg. The money was not necessarily good but The Beatles still went for it because there were “a lot of alcohol and sex.” After putting in many hours in Germany, The Beatles became really good.
Here is a quote from Philip Norman who wrote The Beatles biography Shout!:
They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back. They learned not only stamina. They had to learn an enormous amount of numbers—cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock and roll, a bit of jazz too. They weren’t disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.
Everyone knows the story of Bill Gates. Harvard dropout who made billions in Microsoft. In the book, Gladwell tells the story of Gates that the popular media does not state. Gates’s father was a wealthy lawyer in Seattle. His mother was a daughter of a well-to-do banker. Because his family had money, Gates was able to attend a private school called Lakeside. In his second year at Lakeside, the school started a computer lab. This is remarkable because this was 1968 when most colleges did not even have computer labs. Even more extraordinary was the fact that Lakeside installed ASR-33 Teletype, which was a time-sharing terminal with a direct link to a mainframe computer in downtown Seattle. Time-sharing got invented in 1965 so it was a fairly new technology that Gates and his classmates got to use. With this technology, Bill Gates was able to do real-time programming as an eight grader in 1968. Due to connections at Lakeside, Gates later had the opportunity to hang around the computer center at University of Washington (Gates lived close to the university, which is an added convenience and great motivator to visit), which agreed to let him have free computer time in exchange for working on a piece of software that could be used to automate company payrolls.
In the story of Bill Gates, we see college was basically not necessary for him because he already acquired the skills while growing up. This is what the media fails to emphasize. He dropped out of college because he already put in the work to acquire skills.
The media hypes successful people who are college dropouts. There is a subtle suggestion that formal education is not needed to be successful. This is partly true but there should be an emphasis on real education. The successful college dropouts did not need formal education because they have already educated themselves through hours of working on their craft. Hence, college is not necessary but is helpful if one needs to work on their craft. Gladwell suggests that 10,000 hours is needed to be good at something. I do have to add that 10,000 hours should be hours of uncomfortable deliberate practice. One can spend 10,000 hours in a hobby but without intense concentration and hard work, mastery will not be achieved.