Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I'm in the midst of reading a very good book, Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." Although I'm only half-way through this book, it has already taught me a few interesting things (to be great hockey player you'd best be born in the first three months of the year). The first half of this book is much better in my opinion than his previous two books, both of which I read but didn't find much in that reading to inspire me. Outliers is different. Many of the ideas are, like most good ideas, seemingly obvious at first glance,  interesting with some thought and brilliant after some reflection (I read that math theorems also follow this progression of opinion). 

The best piece of information in there so far is the idea that to be really good, approaching mastery, at something you have to put in about 10,000 hours at it. The second is that there are thresholds for natural ability; to be a successful lawyer you need to be "smart enough," but not necessarily brilliant. To be a good athlete you need to be good enough, but not necessarily the most talented. They are plenty of smart people doing very poorly at the game of life. There are plenty of climbers with natural talent who do very little with it. Most of the really good athletes I know in any sport were not the most naturally talented when they started, but they practiced like demons. Maybe for about 10,000 hours... 

This is something to think about. If you want to be a really good skier you likely need about 10,000 hours of thinking about snow, skiing in snow, rolling in it, whatever it takes to get to that level of understanding and skill. 

Another idea in the book is that successful people also have unique opportunities, and the desire to involve themselves in those opportunities. Bill Gates had access to a, for then, high-end computer to play with, and play he did--for at least 10,000 hours. I had access to a lot of rock and ice, and while I wouldn't claim to be remotely "successful" in the sense of Bill Gates, I've been both lucky enough to have had early opportunities and to have wanted to use those opportunities. If I had been born in Manitoba to a stockbroker I doubt I would have taken up climbing or river kayaking, at least not at as young an age as I was able to by having parents who were into the mountains and lived there. Wait, maybe if I'd been born to stockbrokers I would have had better money sense...

Anyhow, it's a good read and worth thinking about in terms of not only athletics but also life. What are we truly successful at, and why? Those of us on the backside of 40 are likely realizing that some doors are now closed simply because we don't have 10,000 hours to put into something new, nor are we likely to have the opportunity to pursue certain things. If you're 20 you're already way too old to ever be a great basketball player, but there are a lot of professional avenues still open to exploration. Interesting.



L said...

Gladwell ROCKS!


Site Admin said...

I just finished it a week or so ago.
A great book that you keep thinking back to. I finished it about a day before the US air plane went down into the hudson, so the sections on airline crashes was fresh in my mind.
Also loved the part about how much kids learn over the summer based on demographics.

Hope all is well Will. My bro Steve went to WMS w/you. Climbed w/you in the flume about 8 yrs ago.