What does it take to become an Outlier?
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I recently read Outliers – The Story of Success. It was published in 2008, so I’m a bit late to the party, but as I passed through Heathrow Airport at 7am on the first Saturday of half term it caught my eye on a bookshelf.  

Malcolm Gladwell, the book’s author, looks at all sorts of unusually successful people – outliers – from pop singers and tech giants to lesser-known ice hockey players and lawyers. Gladwell presents a compelling argument for the complex blend of factors which can lead to exceptional success.  

So, what does it take to become an outlier? Interestingly, talent seems to be only one ingredient.  

A key area of exploration by Gladwell is the amount of time that we invest in our talent, for example through practice. He refers to the research of K Anders Ericson, which estimates that exceptional violinists engage in 10,000 hours of practice to reach the loftiest of heights. Gladwell makes similar reference to the practice hours of The Beatles, and describes a time, pre fame, when they played concerts seven days a week, for up to eight hours a day. 

Gladwell credits extensive practice – these 10,000 hours – as a key element of success, but not the only factor.  

Clearly, 10,000 hours can’t be the sole reason for success. I can guarantee you that at my age, even if I gave up work and focused entirely on becoming a 100-metre sprinter or a violinist, even if I managed the necessary 10,000 hours, I would be unlikely to become an outlier in either area. And not all practice is created equal – if I don’t get feedback, if I don’t get insights on how to improve, and if I don’t engage in deliberate practice, the sorts of activities which are shown to improve instrument playing or sprint racing, then I’ll be even further away, and my performance might plateau early in my attempts.  

Genetics also plays a role. Research at King’s College London, led by Robert Plomin, studied 15,000 twins in the UK. He found that drawing ability among identical twins was much more highly correlated than that between fraternal twins. Since identical twins share 100% of their genes, and fraternal twins share only 50%, these findings indicate that differences in basic artistic ability are at least in part due to genetics.  

So, we have the talent piece and the practice piece but what else is there to consider when it comes to success? Some of you may feel a bit aggrieved by this; but luck can be another factor. Gladwell uses ice hockey players as one example. Clearly the top players will have a genetically conferred ability to achieve success in sport – their talent; they will have engaged in deliberate practice and devoted many hours to their sport, and they will probably have demonstrated resilience, grit and determination. But when you look at the data of the best US ice hockey players, there’s something peculiar going on. The majority of them were born in the first third of the year. In fact, in any elite group of hockey players 40% will have been born between Jan and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September and 10% from October to December.  

How can this be? Surely there isn’t a seasonal impact on the genetic variation of the human being. Well, it’s probably something much more straight forward and much more human produced; it is the cut-off date which determines the hockey age group you are in – and it’s 1st January. This means that children who are 12 months older than their youngest teammates start out on their hockey journey together. And guess what, no matter if they are equally talented, it is highly likely that, due to physiological factors, a child who is 12 months older will be bigger, more developed, more co-ordinated and therefore potentially more likely to be noticed by the coach. They are likely to get more game play, be invited to more training camps, have more deliberate practice time to develop their game play, and they will likely accelerate beyond their younger teammates. I am not taking anything away from their talent or their determination by the time they become a professional, but early on they had an advantage just because of the date they were born on.    

All this has left me with a strong sense that humility is vitally important in our success. We should be grateful for the talents we are born with and should embrace and develop these as much as we can. But we should also acknowledge that an element of luck may have played its part in our exceptional moment and appreciate that one person’s measure of ultimate success can look very different to the next. 

  • Head's Blog by Mrs Cole