I love it when you find something (a book, a theory, a talk) that explains the seemingly inexplicable. And by “explain” I mean “with actual reasons”-  not with general loose platitudes about fate and destiny. Yes – those elements are there in an existential sense, described in probabilistic terms as miraculous – but that doesn’t actually answer why some people are better at things than others.

Sidebar: I strongly disagree with the “it was just meant to be” attitude. Please. You are not some loose string dangling in the hurricanes of life. We’re more like yachts that get to choose whether to let the sails ride free or tack against the wind. Yachts that let the winds take them “wherever they’re meant to be” usually end up either capsized, shipwrecked, or roaming endlessly without destination. Yes – some people start off with better yachts than others. But they’re just as likely to fail if they decide not to captain the ship.

So in Outliers, Malcom Gladwell gives some pretty convincing answers (theories?) as to why some people are better than others at certain tasks.

Here’s the classic example: the most common birthday month for professional hockey players in Canada is January, by a large margin. The second most common is February. The third most common is March…

Isn’t that unusual? If this was all a random game of talent/gift/nature, then you would expect to see a relatively even distribution of birthdays across the year. But we don’t, which suggests that something else is happening.

And it is. And it’s got nothing to do with Star Signs.

If you’re a young Canadian, the first time that you’ll be eligible for selection to a touring squad is when you’re nine or ten. When you’re nine and born on January 1st, you have a 12 month maturation gap on the nine year old born in December of the same year. That’s an extra 12 months of growth and strength acquisition. What are the chances that you’re going to come off more “talented” in a try-out just because you’re bigger and stronger (and almost a year older!)?

The answer is: very high. So the “older” nine year olds get selected.

From that point on, they’re included in special training camps. They compete in more games (two to four times as many as the kids left behind to play for their school/home-team squads). They get better coaches. They gain more experience by playing against similarly trained players. By the time that they get to major league selection, their differentiated experiences have made them better than the guys left behind.

And you see the same thing happening in America baseball. Only, the American cut-off date for baseball leagues is July 31st (unlike the Canadian hockey cut-off of December 31st). So most baseball players tend to be born in August, September and October…

The implication is that similar things happen in schools, where teachers confuse maturity for ability – so the older children end up in more advanced streams, getting better teachers and more attention from them.

The 10,000 hour rule

The other famous part of this book is the differential between those who are good and those who are excellent. Yes – there may have been some luck involved – but generally speaking, there’s actually a time factor involved.

The study that gets used took place in Berlin’s Academy of Music. The violin students were split by the Academy professors into three groups: the future stars (soloists), the good players (the orchestral backups), and those destined to be music teachers in the public schooling system (the audience).

The primary differentiator between those three groups was hours spent practicing. On average, the players had all started to learn the violin at the age of 5, and they’d all practiced for between two and three hours per week for the first few years. But by the age of eight, a split started to occur. Those that were top of the class (so there is some space for innate talent) started to practice more. By the age of 20, they were practicing for well over 30 hours a week – amassing over 10,000 hours worth of violin practice time.

When this study then examined the differences between amateur and professional pianists, they found a similar pattern emerging. Amateurs never practiced for more than three hours a week, so they’d only built up 2,000 hours of experience. Professional pianists had replicated the violinists with over 10,000 hours by the time their were 20.

The interesting part of the study is that no one emerged that worked 10,000 hours but wasn’t a star (a grinder without enough talent), nor did any star emerge that had casually practiced for less (a natural).

The conclusion seems to be that innate talent plays a relatively small role in the overall outcome. And the 10,000 hour rule keeps coming up in all kinds of professions. Even Bill Gates gets cited as an example (he had a university computer lab near his childhood home where he used to spend all his time coding, apparently).

The Conclusion

The somewhat depressing conclusion is that my dream of becoming a polyglot remains 10,000 hours away. On the other hand, having spent a third of my life sleeping, I can safely say that I am an expert at rest.

PS: there are other equally interesting sections of the book. In particular, there’s a section on being born in the right place at the right time. And some issues with genius.