Summary Written by Chris Taylor

The Big Idea

Practicing for an Opportunity

"The lucky part was the unwillingness of the WASP firms to step into takeover law. But that word luck fails to capture the work and the efforts and the imagination and the acting on opportunities that might have been hidden and not so obvious."- Outliers, page 129

So was it luck then? Simply a matter of “right place, right time” that allowed Flom to build his firm into the well respected (and highly profitable) empire it is today? The big guys didn’t want to touch takeovers, so Flom did, and as such happened to be an expert in the field by the time the industry became lucrative in the 1970s and 1980s. There was a factor of luck, surely. But, what Gladwell makes clear is that luck is a starting point. Lasting success requires a lot more than just good fortune.

Lasting success requires hard work. How much hard work? Oh, say… 10,000 hours worth.

Insight #1

10,000 hours

"researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number [of practice hours] for true expertise: ten thousand hours."- Outliers, page 40

Drawing on examples from sports, music, computers and more, Gladwell hammers home the revelation that what separates the good, from the great, from the exceptional is one thing – hard work. In possibly the greatest finding of Outliers, we learn that in no cases does someone effortless rise to the top of their field. Granted, someone must possess a certain level of skill or certain “benchmark” characteristics in order to succeed in their chosen field (tough to find many 5’2″ basketball stars), but once that benchmark is met, what separates the good from the great is practice. (Michael Jordan is, after all, only 6’6″ – tall by “normal standards”, but fairly average in the professional basketball world)

As Gladwell points out, “practice isn’t something you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” (Outliers, page 42) Joe Flom reached the pinnacle of the legal world not because he was naturally a brilliant lawyer (although he was very good; aka was above the “benchmark” level) but because he practiced his craft for over fifteen years before it became the powerful industry it is today. Bill Gates, as another example from Outliers, had access to a computer in middle school (keep in mind, this was in 1968) and, because of his love of computers, spent as many hours as he could on it. He was given a rare opportunity and is no doubt quite intelligent, yet it was the hard work and practice that allowed him to capitalize on his good fortune. These are two of the countless examples of people who had a talent and had an opportunity, but then succeeded because they worked harder than anyone else. It doesn’t sound as sexy as “natural genius” or “prodigy”, but it’s true. Practice is the only path to true genius. So the trick is – how on earth do you stick with something for 10,000 hours?

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Insight #2

Avoiding Prison

"Hard work is only a prison sentence if it does not have meaning."- Outliers, page 150

Bill Gates used to log 20 to 30 hours a week on his school machine – after hours, and on the weekends. NBA star and two MVP Steve Nash told a story once about getting up and practicing the morning after a championship game. And they didn’t do it because they felt pressured to “log hours”. They did it because they loved it. They did it because their work made them feel satisfied. Ask anyone at the top of their field and, if they give you an honest answer, they’ll tell you they truly enjoy what they do. “autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” You avoid the prison of hard work by finding something that you love, and then dedicating yourself to it. Finding an industry where you are rewarded for your efforts is the first step in the path to greatness. For Bill Gates, the reward was in the joy of further understanding a new technology and pushing the envelope as to it’s capabilities. For Joe Flom the reward was as simple as putting food on the table while knowing the more proficient he became at his craft, the more he could provide. Find your purpose for getting up in the morning, work hard at it, and there is nothing stopping you from becoming an Outlier yourself.

A worthy companion to Gladwell’s first two books, Outliers is a fascinating read and one that will redefine the way you look at success. But (and it’s a big but), Gladwell makes it very clear that all the opportunity in the world will not guarantee success if they are not coupled with a passion for what we do, and a dedication to perfecting our craft.

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Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with “The New Yorker” magazine since 1996. His 1999 profile of Ron Popeil won a National Magazine Award, and in 2005 he was named one of “Time” Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He is the author of four books, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference,” (2000) , “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (2005), and “Outliers: The Story of Success” (2008) all of which were number one “New York Times” bestsellers. His latest book, “What the Dog Saw” (2009) is a compilation of stories published in “The New Yorker.”

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