I just finished reading the book “Outliers”, which was sitting in my books folder for the past semester, waiting for its fair share of time and attention. This summer, I finally got to it, and it was nothing short of a wonderful read. I barely remember Gladwell from my Freshman reading class, but I now got to know him more, and I can say that he’s a good guy. His arguments were scientific, and he rarely had logical leaps, or long stretches in thought. As far as I saw it, Outliers is a book about success, and why it is not a purely individual-effort thing like most of us would like to think; Gladwell shows that in order to be successful, it does not suffice to just work hard, or to have a off-the-charts IQ, or to come from a privelleged background. Instead, Gladwell shows that for every success story we hear about, there are always hidden luck factors that are simply not under the one’s control. In this post, I would like to review some of these factors, honestly partially because I am curious how much of the ideas I really absorbed and can explain in my own words, and also because I would like to think about how the ideas brought up in this book pertain to me and people of my background. If you haven’t read the book, this might convince you to pick it up.
10,000 Hours Rule
The first major point in the book was that it takes about ten thousand hours for anyone to really become a world-class expert at something: not less, not more. It is just about practice. This applies to sports, music, programming.. you name it. It just appears that the human brain requires that amount of time so that it can truly cement and maximize its expertise in a field. In fact, Gladwell magnificiently showed that even big names in the computer industry, such as Bill Gates, were exteremely lucky for the most part to have been born in just the right year, and had just the right opportunities to accomplish ten thousand hours of programming before the personal computer (PC) industry exploded, and PCs became much more available and affordable than the big, old mainframe computers. Had Bill Gates been born several years later, they wouldn’t have finished the 10K hours necessary to master the art of programming.
For me, thinking about the 10K hour rule points clearly to the one true expertise I have so far: programming. I had my first exposure to programming at a young age of 11. The start was by pure coincidence, when I was in 6th grade and came across a book teaching Visual Basic .NET in a relative’s car. I started reading, and I remember that I got hooked. Later, I was using Visual Studio to write fairly basic programs such as calculators. I already had so much exposure to how computers work, having spent so much time on the computer that I was lucky to have at home since I was born. Programming, and computers in general, just “made sense”. I was ahead of the curve, and my fascination helped push my abilities higher. Less than one year later, I was very excited about Android, the new smartphone OS by Google. In fact, I ran Android on an emulator long before I had a physical Android phone. Through Android Development, I had my first exposure to Java, which I picked up by both reading and experimenting. By 2013, at the end of middle school, I had published my first app to a Play Store: an app that did middle school-level maths and geometry calculations and graphing. It wasn’t the most complicated program, but it certainly made my life easier doing homework. In fact, when I entered high school, I was surprised to meet fellow classmates who actually used my app and thought it was really helpful throughout middle school(!). They were amazed to know that I was the developer of that app, and I was more amazed to meet actual students in Egypt who happened to come across my app and use it. Nothing spectacular or extraordinary, but it was a sign that I might actually be good at this.
As Gladwell asserted in the book, the people who are “good” get better because they are offered the chance to practice more than their peers. This makes them even better, and after significant time has passed, they are experts. I probably recently exceeded the ten thousand hour mark. My ability in a certain programming language, Python, has shot up, and it really earned me a distinction. Whenever I program, I do it faster than anybody around me, which is usually engineers, but also in many times, computer science majors. Whenever I program, the product is extraordinary. Thankfully, I have reached the point of expertise in something that I profoundly enjoy. Nonetheless, I continously try to find challenges for myself, exploring different computer fields that are a mystery to me, such as hacking.
To be honest, this is where I have most issue with implications of what the book is saying. Gladwell shows that even though we tend to love and embrace glamorous stories about individuals overcoming odds only by their own efforts, these stories are hardly ever the full truth. No one stands without being affected by their roots, be it their family and the way they were brought up, or on a larger scale: their cultural legacy and the ideas it tends to impose on their thinking. For example, Gladwell mentions the effect of different styles of parenting on the success of adults. If a child is taught by their parents to speak up and ask for things that serve them, this child is likely to continue that behaviour in adulthood, where it will serve them well. On the other hand, if the child is taught to not speak up, they are likely to become adults that won’t be able to manipulate their environment to their liking, can’t get people to do what they want, and therefore they are less likely to succeed. In another one of his astonishing examples, Gladwell mentions the rice paddies of East Asia, and how they affected their culture and continue to do so. Rice paddies are those small fields where rice has to be grown in a precise manner and taken care of in order to get better crop.
I have no problem with my roots. I am proud of my native language and how beautiful it is. There are things I am not proud of in my culture, but I understand that every culture in the world has its bad spots too. Nonetheless, I don’t want to think that I am limited in any way by my culture. I would like to think that the style of parenting I had, even though it certainly affects me right now, does not limit my abilities to any degree. I can learn and do whatever I want if I decide to, and I can reach my dreams first and foremost because of my individual effort, and because of the people I choose to keep around, not because my culture, my background or the style of parenting I had. This goes against what the book was saying, but I don’t care.. I didn’t miss the point, I just reject it. I would rather believe that I am always at the locus of control, than spend my time either lamenting or praising my cultural legacy or my past. It is just more productive.
This is the most important, immediately-actionable lesson that could be learned from the book: grab opportunities. Extraordinary success was possible not only because people had great skill or worked hard, but also because they were given extraordinary opportunities that they managed to capitalize on. That’s how it was for Bill Gates, who was given the opportunity to apply his newly-learned programming skills in a real company at a young age. It also applies to Steve Jobs who managed to collect “computer spare parts” by linking up with one of Hewlett-Packard’s founders and ended up securing a summer job there. In fact, this is the most reoccuring theme in stories mentioned in the book, and it is unlikely to obtain
There are two important lessons regarding opportunities that come to mind. The first is that you should grab opportunities whenever you come across one, and make the most out of them. The second is that you should seek and make opportunities. Put yourself in settings where you can hear and discuss ideas that are out of the box or extraordinary. Invest time and effort in building relationships with interesting people who know people. Lastly, be a person who creates opportunities for oneself and for others. Connect people you know who might have something of interest to each other. This is how you create opportunities and maintain being in the loop about interesting events and ideas. Sitting in office, or doing classwork is great and all, but adding a element of randomness and spontaneity is likely to bring you to places and people you could not otherwise reach.