Outliers: Hard Work, Luck, and Success

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Why do some people exceed far more than others? This is the question asked by the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. The short book argues that most people erroneously believe that very successful people are primarily products of a high intelligence and lots of talent. But there are many other variables out there, ranging from their date of birth, to their family’s cultural background, to sheer luck.

But the most important relationship was between hard work and luck. In the Chapter called “The 10,000 Hour Rule”, Gladwell states that it takes 10,000 hours to master a subject – be it hockey, music, or computer programming. There are no shortcuts to this.

However, Bill Gates got 10,000 hours of computer time while attending an elite private school before he even reached college in 1973, at a time when many top universities didn’t even have computer labs. Before they became famous, The Beatles ended up playing at a club in Germany for over 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. This meant they accumulated more live stage time (1,200 performances) in a couple years than most bands had in a lifetime. In other words, they both had a nice does of luck to be able to get their 10,000 hours in when very few others had the same opportunity.

At the same time, they also had the ambition and drive to actually complete those 10,000 hours. Sometimes I think that “talent” is no more than loving something so much that you don’t mind spending endless hours doing it.

So to be extraordinarily successful, you need both luck and hard work. People can interpret these stories differently. One person might say “Yup, those guys were successful because they were more lucky than I was.” and then feel better about their lives. The thing to remember is that between hard work and luck, you can control only one.

If you don’t put in the hours, there is essentially zero chance of success. If you do, then when opportunity hits, you can flourish. Gladwell connects the Chinese proverb stating “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich” to a special public school network within low-income areas that creates kids who can compete with those from private schools in wealthy suburbs.

Although I was initially afraid that this book would try to put too much emphasis on the role of luck, in the end it actually reinforced my own basic beliefs about hard work. You can’t control the cards you are dealt. All you can do is play them as best you can.

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  1. Outliers was a GREAT read! It’s a little bit sobering in some respects, but I agree with you on what you can and can’t control. I wonder what Warren Buffet’s ‘luck’ was? Anyone have insight into his ‘advantage’ over the rest of investors?

  2. It’s important to point out that a huge part of his “luck” argument had to do with the time period people are born in as well. Obviously Gates and Steve Jobs were born right at the start of the personal computer revolution. Without that timing, they never would have become such monumental successes because the big time of influence would have passed. On a smaller scale, he talks about hockey players born right after the cutoff date for their league have the best chance for success because they are among the oldest/most developed kids within that group.

  3. Just finished reading it as well, and I agree with you (and the book). I am looking forward to reading “Blink” next 🙂

  4. I think luck plays a much larger role than people think, particularly if you chose the unconventional path (i.e. starting a business). Work gets you to where you will be a relative success; luck gets you to the likes of the rich and famous. I mean, the Beatles, Bill Gates are the absolute top of the pyramid in their respective areas!!! That has to be attributed almost ENTIRELY to luck. Was Bill Gates truly more talented, for example, than any of the other thousands upon thousands of software engineers in the 1970s who saw the future of PCs? Hardly so. Given that he completed his 10k hours, Bill Gates would certainly be a successful individual whether or not IBM had decided to allow MS to license its software to it, but he certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near the same level. This decision, given that Gates had no ultimate control over what other people would decide, was luck. All he could do was make a good case and hope for the best. In addition, it was “luck” that the IBM PC was in the right place at the right time, and that Apple made some decisions to their detriment in the early 80s. But suppose IBM decides not to license Windows. MS is just another software company, maybe they’re still in business, maybe not.

    For your consideration, why is Netscape not raking in the dough with licensed copies of their software, like they tried to do in the 1990s? They were unlucky. The timing wasn’t as good, a huge corporation was out to crush them and the government allowed it to happen. Marc Andreessen was every bit as talented and they ushered in an internet revolution, equally important to that of the PC. Yet they are not the world’s wealthiest people; the breaks didn’t go their way. But, certainly they are successful. Marc had his 10k hours as well and to show for it has probably .01% the wealth of Bill Gates, and this is entirely attributable to luck.

    It’s hard to say whether Gates or Andressen made the absolute best decisions in every case to improve their chances, but you can’t argue that both are talented, yet one was “lucky” and became the world’s richest man, and the other, while still being successful, was not.

  5. As Buffett put it, if he were born in a third world country he wouldn’t have been successful. Being lucky to be born in the US was one of the first string of successes for the Oracle of Omaha 😉

  6. I was just thinking that most people have easily spent 10K hours watching TV. Too bad that doesn’t lead to any great job opportunities. And in an average work year, there are 2080 hours (really less for the holidays and vacations), but that means that in roughly 5 years, we are all “masters” at our jobs. But that doesn’t mean were going to be all that successful either. It doesn’t take 10K hours to get A’s in college either, which could land you a great job. Madonna (I’m not sure if consider her as great of a success, though she is quite wealthy) has said that it’s the ability to follow through that brings success. So yeah, when people continue to work at something (for however many hours), they are actually “following through”. And I guess that would also mean you have to have an actual plan that you are following though on too. And what is the goal of that plan — just to master a subject, or to make money from mastering the subject? A musician could practice for years and become great at their instrument and not make any money too.

  7. I can’t find any research to support this 10,000 hours idea. Does he give a source in the book?

    I highly doubt that it is the same for every subject, or that it wouldn’t vary from person to person. I suspect no one can actually “master” every subject, even given unlimited time.

    Looking at successful people is not a very useful way to figure out where success comes from. It’s much more useful to look at failures. I’m sure there are tons of failures that have spent 10,000+ hours at whatever they failed at.

  8. mimi, you missed the point of 10K hours.
    Bill Gates, beatles and all other success stories were working and sweating hard all those 10K hours, to achieve their goal.

    Your TV analogy is right; you do become master of “Couch Potato” after spending 10K dumb hours in front of TV.

    On the other hand if you watch programs that add value to your knowledge and help you develop sellable & marketable skills as an aid to your goal then spending 10K hours will definitely gets you close to your goal.

    If someone has put 10K hours to achieve their goal and end up without recognition/money then (in most of the cases) it could be attributed to “not putting honest efforts”, “putting honest efforts in wrong direction” and of course “luck”

    You get the point ? 10K hours of hard and honest work in the right direction.

  9. So basically the author took Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” and turned it into a book.

  10. I’m with Andy, I’m very skeptical when a journalist produces a book like this without significant sources to back up a claim.

    Also the 10,000 hour number is just so arbitrary, it doesn’t really pass the sniff test.

  11. There is a huge difference between 5 years of experience and one year of experience 5 times. I think you always have to be expanding and improving your area of expertise.

    In regard to Bill Gates up above, there was a little bit of nepotism as well as luck considering that Gates’ mom sat on the board at IBM…

  12. A personal observation I have had about the most successful people I have been around is that not one of them has been a procrastinator. I’m sure it’s only a small part of success, but probably an important one.

    When Mark Cuban bought the Mavs I was sure they would tank. I mean that billion he made on the internet was just luck right? He hasn’t won the NBA title, but it turns out he was lucky enough to be successful in two completely different kinds of businesses. I need that kind of luck.

  13. You can read more in SnowBall, but I would say Buffett had the following “luck” based on my loose memory:

    – Born in the US, middle class family in first-world country
    – Got rejected from Harvard or Yale (?) I think, and found himself studying with Benjamin Graham at Columbia.
    – Started his partnerships at at time when markets were much less efficient, no online research, when there was lots of companies selling for less than book value.

    Still, lots of people could have had similar opportunities, and his work ethic couldn’t be questioned. He has spent decades honing his craft.

  14. This book is itself a loose argument for the 10,000 hour rule, compiled of several examples of which I only listed a few. Mozart is another one. It’s definitely not a peer-reviewed piece of academic work, and I think it’s fine to criticize it on that front. But still, read it and decide.

    But going back to the Couch Potato example, I know someone who runs websites catering to Reality TV nuts. They used their 10,000 hours of watching TV and created something of value that attracts a lot of traffic (lots of Couch Potatoes out there)… and this advertising and money.

    @Brian – That is exactly what I take away from the book. The difference between the success of Gates or Andressen is significantly due to luck. (Look at the Gates Foundation goals, I think he would agree.) But I would also say both are successful, could retire right now IF they wanted to, and probably proud of their accomplishments.

    I don’t know any “failure” who put anywhere near 10,000 hours of effort into a project. They tried some scheme for 6 months, quit, and then tried to borrow money for another 6 months of “trying”. Doing this for 10,000 hours doesn’t count.

  15. JoetheBankgeek says

    Is there is any way to increase your luck? Does hard work make you lucky? It might in some situations. But does that apply in every situation? There is no 10,000 hour rule. That’s only somebody’s opinion. I might add that many successful people are actually cheats. In the last year and half many people have seen the value of their homes, pensions, portfolios etc. go down by 50%. At the same time the swindler banks of Wall Street are still paying themselves billions in bonuses that came largely from government money. What does hard work have to do with that?

  16. Tom Lutzenberger says

    Awareness sees opportunities. Education, work and experience train awareness.

  17. If you read about Buffett his 10k hours started as a kid with all the businesses he started and ran. Then a great stroke of luck was to get Ben Graham as a professor in business school. Soros also fits the outlier formula rather well and his great stroke of luck was teaming up with Jimmy Rogers as they racked up a remarkable investment record at Quantum…

  18. Is it actually “LUCK” if you succeed after putting in that much time and effort? I see the luck aspect in Buffets book, as luck to be born to certain parents, or in the US and having more advantages …,but not here

    Here’s a thought:
    If I never played baseball and stepped up at the plate and hit a homerun out of Yankee stadium, than yes I see that as Luck. If I spent 10,000 hours of batting practice in yankee stadium and hit one out, is that luck? Possibly a weak example, but I’m not seeing the correlation between time, energy, dedication and getting lucky in the process.

  19. I wonder if Carlos Slim Helú (#3 on world’s billionaire list) would argue that he’s “lucky” he was born in Mexico.

  20. You’re more likely to put in 1000’s of hours at something you have a natural aptitude for.

    Also, the market is not more efficient now according to Buffett. He says human nature doesn’t change. There may be times when many assets are overpriced and times when more are under priced, (greed and fear) but as a whole the markets are not more efficient now and they won’t be in the future.

  21. “I don’t know any “failure” who put anywhere near 10,000 hours of effort into a project. They tried some scheme for 6 months, quit, and then tried to borrow money for another 6 months of “trying”. Doing this for 10,000 hours doesn’t count.”

    I’ll inform you, how about getting a PhD (5years) and ending up unemployed after 4 additional years of post doc work.

  22. i am 2,436 hours short of becoming an expert at reading this blog.

    @ failure. unemployed doesnt make you a failure, it means that there is not a market for the skill set you have to offer in your given time and place. if the PhD is in medieval studies, thats a you problem, if its in something that applies to life, then i think its just a matter of time before failure becomes nothing more than a short-term setback and distant memory.

  23. I haven’t read the book yet but it looks like a good one. I can’t image that the ‘10,000 hour rule’ is meant to be literal. I think the point is that the chance of success is greatly improved by spending a substantial amount of time and effort amassing the knowledge and skill on the subject.

    I have read Graham’s ‘The Intelligent Investor’. There in lies the roots of Buffet’s ‘luck’. An introduction by Buffet in this newer edtion defines and clear distinction between investors and speculators. Funny, I couldn’t find anything in that book about ‘fear’ and ‘jittery’ investment strategies that the financial media thinks we should use to make investment decisions.

    I have a copy of an old Readers Digest article about Buffet. It talks about how he basically worked his butt off through his teen years that built the $10,000 pot with which he launched his investing career. Buffet himself has stated that he doesn’t invest in anything he doesn’t thoroughly understand. He takes the time and does the research to ensure that lady luck will come a-calling.

  24. rawbytes says

    Most comments here concentrate, again and again, on the individual contribution of the successful people, while the whole point of the book is that the the society and the environment plays the greater role in success.

  25. Though I don’t believe it takes 10,000 hours of study to become a successful investor, I agree with the general principle here – that putting in the sweat equity to learn about the companies you want to invest in, the leadership and management behind those companies, and the amount of hours THEY’VE put in to develop their companies’ competitive advantages – this knowledge always, always pays off for the small investor.

    I’ve found that the most successful companies to invest in are the ones where CEOs and top-level management have BAGs (Big Audacious Goals) and commitment to see these BAGs through. The kind of guys who really stand out and achieve great things, as in Outliers.

    Letting other peoples’ hard work, talent and “10,000 hours” pay off for you – that’s the key to successful investing. I talk about this a lot in my upcoming book, Payback Time.

  26. divya bharathi says

    I read this message.i agree with you that we need both luck and hard work.i am just a school student.i looked into this for my english elocution competition.

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