So You Want to Be an Outlier? Don’t Plan on It.

Posted on October 5, 2012 by


Almost every article you read about learning, becoming an expert, or deliberate practice will reference the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  The basic idea is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master, expert or Outlier.  Many people have stretched this idea to say that you will guarantee your success if you practice 10,000 hours.

I have  seen the 10,000 hour rule referenced hundreds of times, and referenced it a couple times myself, and yet I had never actually read the book.  On my last vacation I downloaded a copy and read it cover to cover.  I am so glad I did because there is so much more to Gladwell’s theory of Outliers than the 10,000 hour rule.

The book isn’t just about the huge successes of our time

Outliers can be on both sides of the spectrum and he talks about

  • pilots from Korea that have a higher than average crash rate.
  • a decade that created a higher proportion of wealthy people than any other time.
  • the inability of the smartest man in the world to be successful.
  • the unbelievable success of Bill Gates and the Beatles.

My biggest takeaway from the book was that success and failure is complicated, messy and unpredictable.   That we are not just a sum of our efforts. 

We are a sum of our efforts, the opportunities and “luck” we have encountered, the culture and society that we were raised in, and the economic cycle we came of age in.

Basically, it is no were near as simple as “practice 10,000 hours and you will be a success.”  It is more like, practice 10,000 hours, have a series of lucky opportunities, and be born in the right year so that you are coming of age right when there is an opportunity for you to solve a market need that requires a marriage of your skills and passion.

That is all you need to become Wealthy beyond your wildest dreams…  Unless it goes the other way of course.

Why do people try to boil it down to 10,000 hours?  Why can’t they be comfortable with the fact that their is no clear path to becoming Bill Gates or the Beatles?  These examples of success, these Outliers, are anomalies.  They can’t be predicted and they can’t be recreated.  They are an output of a unique set of variables.

So what do we do with this information? 

What does it mean that you can’t really control your destiny and that much is left up to chance?  You can let those dreams go.  They weren’t very realistic anyway.

  1. Focus on improving yourself.
  2. Prepare yourself for opportunities.
  3. Work on developing skills that you are passionate about.
  4. Enjoy the process of learning new skills and using them on a daily basis.
  5. Don’t focus on the long-term results that you hope to achieve.

I actually find it refreshing.  I don’t want to live my whole life dreaming about something that may never happen or that I have no control over.

Rather than dreaming about

  • creating an app that will change the world and make me a billionaire,
  • becoming a legendary guitarist who plays in front of thousands of fans,
  • or writing a book that becomes a best seller and garners me invitations to speak around the world.

I would rather

  • learn how to program and make an app that would be useful to me,
  • practice guitar consistently and share it with friends and family,
  • write regularly and share my thoughts on this blog.

I think some people would find this idea defeatist.  That I am dialing down my dreams.  That isn’t the American way right?  Go big or go home.

The truth is that more ideas and motivations are squashed with big dreams than with little achievements.  It is hard to start working on a project if you feel like it needs to change the world.  Where do you start?  What does it look like?  How do you even imagine a project that will have 1 billion users?

I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg had a plan that one day there would be a billion Facebook users.  It is hard to have that dream until you have seen it happen.  It is the rest of us who has had the well poisoned.  Someone has already done it.  They did it better, faster, bigger.

Why should I even bother?

You should bother because you are going to feel good after you tried.  Because you are going to learn and grow and that will make you happier.  Because the people that you care about most are going to be proud of you.  You should do it because it is way better than sitting around and watching TV or surfing on the Internet.  It is more rewarding in so many ways.  That is why you put in the time.

The outcome alone cannot be enough reason to do anything in life. 

We can’t predict what combinations of effort, timing, personality and culture will lead to the next big Outlier.  But you can count on the fact that the next Outlier isn’t sitting in their basement just dreaming of world domination.  They are creating.  They are working through a project that tickles their interest.  Something they believe is of value and they want to nurture it until it is ready to be performed, or published or launched.

When it gets out there it may or may not be a huge success.  Maybe it will only be appreciated by a handful of people.  They won’t stop working though.  They will keep chipping away and developing and creating.

That is what I plan on doing.  How about you?