December 2009


If you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book Outliers: The Story of Success, move it to the top of your list. Gladwell makes sense of why some succeed and others do not. Intelligence, hard work, determination, and education are not enough. One’s cultural heritage matters. The occupations of one’s forebears matter. The year one was born matters. Being in the right place at the right time matters.


Gladwell found that to be really good at something, one needs about 10,000 hours of practice. Bill Gates had it. The Beatles had it. Concert pianists and violin virtuosos have it. If the right opportunity arises at the right time when one has the requisite 10,000 hours of practice, success is imminent. Bill Gates had 10,000 hours of programming practice in January 1975 when the first PC—the MITS Altair 8800—was introduced. Gates was born in 1955. He was the right age to jump into a new field and had the practice and unique knowledge needed at precisely that time. Yes, it’s luck. The Gates story puts success in perspective. If one element that led to Gates’ success had been missing, we would never have heard of him.


Outliers continues with how one’s upbringing and cultural heritage shape a person’s future in surprising ways. Children growing up in homes of immigrant parents in the very early 1900s learned ingenuity and extreme persistence. Immigrants had to create a market for their talents to make a living in the New World. Similarly, Asian children growing up within a rice cultivation culture learn the traits pervasive within a rice economy: persistence, determination, and stamina.


Asian students outperform the rest of the world on the TIMSS Math & Science exam given every four years. Gladwell explains that a lengthy background questionnaire given along with the test accurately predicts a student’s score on the actual test. Students from non-Asian cultures give up and leave some of the seemingly irrelevant questions unanswered. These same students give up easily when faced with challenging math and science questions. The persistent, determined, and high-stamina Asian students keep trying—and score higher on the test. Ken Bain relates a similar idea in his book, What the Best College Teachers Do. Bain explains that when young children are praised for their effort rather than only for their successes, they learn to keep working at something until it is achieved.


We achieve success by working hard and being good at what we do. If the right opportunity comes to us, we may make millions, or become famous, or both. But if that opportunity does not present itself, we have contributed our hard work to the world around us and that in itself is the story of success.