I spent a large portion of my day today reading through Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Outliers. In it, Gladwell takes a look at the underlying factors that contribute to the rise of what we typically call a “successful” individual. The book looks at the stories of several prominent people in todays world, among the Bill Gates, Bill Joy, the creator of UNIX, and The Beatles. Also critiqued are the Asians and their math skills, youths in Canadian hockey leagues, and the entrepreneurial tycoons of the late eighteen-hundreds like Rockefeller. Mr. Gladwell asserts, through these stories and others, that the rags-to-riches stories that we Americans love to hear are far and away simply untrue. Successful people, no matter how much innate ability or genius they have, are still the product of their times, their heritage, their circumstances, and a lot (Gladwell estimates at least ten-thousand hours) of work. Sometimes dumb luck helps, too. Outliers is essentially a collection of stories that reinforce this point.
While the book is certainly well done and thought provoking, it does little to assist the reader in thinking about his or her future. The book is a look at history, and since we can’t know the effects of the present on the future, it does little to comfort those who are struggling to be successful. Main points to take away from it are:
1. Hope you were born at the right time
2. Hope you network with the right people
3. Know your history
4. Work really, really hard
These points apply to almost everyone I consider successful. Take guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen, for example. He was born in 1963, making him ten years old when Jimi Hendrix died. He watched the funeral on TV, and after seeing a clip of Hendrix performing, took up guitar. He practiced incessantly all through his teen years, aided by his mother who let him drop out of school after she recognized his talent. He took up an apprenticeship with a luthier which allowed him to get some practice in even while at work. He wasn’t a rich kid whose parents paid for expensive guitar teachers and equipment (not that that would have necessarily mattered). He got good because practically all he did every day for ten years was play guitar. He easily had his ten-thousand hours in by the time he was 21, at which time he moved to L.A. at the prime of the metal scene. Eddie Van Halen had come on the scene just five years before, and now every kid in Southern California was trying to shred like Eddie did. And then arrived Mr. Malmsteen, who had been doing just that for the past ten years. Of course he was going to be successful!
The thing that most struck me about Outliers, though, was the point Gladwell pushed to people like me who haven’t put ten-thousand hours into anything yet. That point? Identify what you are good at. Figure out what you’ve had success doing in the past, and pour more coal onto that. To that I would add, “Make sure that’s what God wants you to do, or otherwise it will be futile regardless of your effort,” but the point is still the same. To be successful, you need to know what you’re good at. Maybe it’s cabinet-making, maybe it’s computer programming, maybe it’s being a jack-of-all-trades that is useful to a degree in just about anything. Regardless, isolate that, and full steam ahead!