Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

No, it [excellence] doesn’t start with talent, it starts with love.
Malcolm Gladwell on Jimmy Kimmel Live (1-13-09)

Luck is what you have left over after you give 100 percent.
Langston Coleman


Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

The zeitgeist in the world of practice is the 10,000 hour rule, a fact that first appeared in Ericsson’s research into excellence. Basically, it means that if you practice a thing for 10,000 hours, you’ll become a master at doing it. It’s an oft-quoted statistic and is an important factor in all the books I’ve reviewed in this blog, and it’s no surprise that the 10K rule also appears in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success (and the talks about it). But the 10K rule is an oversimplification. More on this at the end of the review.

Gladwell has produced similar popular books (Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference). His writing has received some criticism, most notably a scathing New York Times review, a paper that has published Gladwell’s writing since 1996. This and other criticism fail to take into account that Gladwell produced exactly the kind of book he set out to produce: something that is interesting to read and which gives us an intriguing take on a Big Idea. To criticize the work for its lack of scientific rigor or flawless logic is to miss the point entirely.

The book, like much of Gladwell’s writing, is full of anecdotes and interesting facts about people who have proven their excellence, people from Bill Gates to professional hockey players. Gladwell’s focus is not on the individual but on the myriad circumstances surrounding that person’s success. It’s an approach that has more of the nurture than nature in it. He finds, not surprisingly, that there are many complex factors that go into anybody’s success, and some of it is luck, but there is no luck without significant hard work, and the support of many people and circumstances. Again, no surprise.

I found the book enjoyable, and worth reading. His take on the ideas is intriguing, and although there is nothing particularly revelatory in the book, I don’t believe this was Gladwell’s intent. His intent was to write an entertaining book that is more a conversation than a compendium on what excellence is, and in that sense he’s succeeded. It’s broken into chunks of about 1,500 words, a practice that Gladwell uses because he believes that’s a size that most people are willing to sit still for. His sales figures seem to support this approach.

What I found myself searching for, and which I didn’t find much of, was a more specific look at the 10K hour rule. Gladwell does correctly say that passion must be a part of the equation, or there would be no will to put in the 10K hours. Surprised? Of course not, but at least one detail of the 10K hours is touched upon, but few others.

This has been the same critique I’ve had of all the books on this subject (and much of the research) I’ve read so far. This isn’t a critique of the writers, because they’re not focused on the makeup of the 10K hours. But it’s what I’m interested in, and probably millions of others who practice music (or anything else for that matter). What is within those 10K hours? How do they play out? If I sit in a room and play an F on my trumpet four hours every day until, after 10 years, I reach the 10K hour mark, I will not be a master trumpet player. There is much more to the 10K rule than just putting in the time.

Stay tuned to find out exactly what’s inside those 10K hours, at least in the field of music.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi I think this is a fantastic blog, keep up the good work…

  2. 10,000 hours of playing F might make you a good trumpet player, but I bet you’d be AWESOME at playing Fs. 🙂

  3. Oops, I meant to say “might NOT make you a good trumpet player….” 🙂

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