What is an outlier? An outlier is a person who has done more than the ordinary. They stand out from the crowd. They have reached the peak of success. The outliers are the geniuses, rock stars, athletes, business tycoons and billionaires of the world. What is their secret?
We always admire people who are successful. We are inspired by stories of rags to riches. We are interested to know them. What is their lifestyle? What is their personality? Do they have special talents? We think that these qualities explain their success. But there is a bigger picture that we are missing.
In this summary, we will find that there is something wrong with how we define success. We only see it as personal. We think that individuals who succeed did everything on their own. It is their own abilities which led them to where they are.
However, is pure talent enough? What about upbringing? What about the people who helped them? What about the culture and society they belong to? By reading the stories of outliers, we will uncover the answers to these questions. We will have a new perspective of success.
“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”In the 1990s, a group of psychologists conducted a study in the Academy of Music at Berlin. They want to know how much do talent and practice determine success. Do the violinists excel because of innate talent? Or is it because of practice?
The psychologists observed that the more hours the students spend in practice, the more they become better at playing violin. As the children grow older, they spend more time practicing. At twenty years old, the best violinists have already spent 10,000 hours.
The same study was conducted to pianists. Amateurs have only spent 2,000 hours since childhood. But the professionals increased practice hours every year. By age 20, they have played a total of 10,000 hours. The psychologists found that there are no “naturals”. There exists no musician who became the best by practicing lesser hours.
To be a world class in anything, you have to spend 10,000 hours. Other studies have proven this magic number. From musicians, to athletes, to writers, to criminal masterminds, it takes 10,000 hours to be on top. It appears that our brain needs 10,000 hours to achieve expertise and mastery.
But the thing is, not everybody can afford to spend 10,000 hours. It is not possible to be achieved on your own. As a child, you need to have supportive parents. As an adult, you need spare time. But if you are poor and you have to work, you would not have enough time for practice. To have 10,000 hours is an extraordinary opportunity.
Take for example, Bill Gates. He has been programming since he was in 8th grade. That is a special opportunity because it was in the 1960s. Only rich people can afford to own a computer at that time.
The father of Bill Gates is a lawyer while his mother is also from a rich family. They enrolled him to an elite school in Seattle called Lakeside. It was one of the few schools in 1968 which have a computer club. Since 8th grade to high school, Bill Gates was able to practice programming nonstop.
When Bill Gates dropped out of college to start Microsoft, he has already spent more than 10,000 hours. He is a brilliant programmer and entrepreneur. But Bill Gates was able to have that unusual opportunity. As Bill Gates said, “I was very lucky.”
To be an outlier, you need to have that special opportunity. You need to be given that lucky break. If you have an extraordinary talent, you also need an extraordinary opportunity to succeed.
“Lift up your heads and look at the image of a man who rose from nothing, who owed nothing to parentage or patronage…” That is what Robert Winthrop said when he unveiled the statue of Benjamin Franklin. But do outliers really rise from nothing?
We are obsessed by autobiographies of successful people. They all have humble beginnings. But they conquered every challenge and achieved success. They did it from their own unique abilities. What we don’t see is that great leaders like Franklin are beneficiaries of opportunities and advantages.
Outliers owe their success to their parents, patrons and the community they belong to. They owe it to the legacies of their ancestors and their culture. If we want to know how a person succeeded, it is not enough to learn about his qualities. We should also ask when and where did he grow up.
Take for example, the Beatles. Before becoming popular, they had their special opportunity in Hamburg, Germany. It was in 1960. At that time, the Beatles was only a high school band.
Hamburg was full of strip clubs then. The rock bands were invited to attract more customers. There was a club called Bruno which always featured bands from Liverpool, England. The owner Philip Norman wanted the bands to play nonstop for hours.
As John Lennon said about their experience in Hamburg, “We got better and get more confidence…We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, get ourselves over.”
The Beatles would play in Hamburg clubs for eight hours straight every night. They developed their creativity, stamina and discipline. In Liverpool, they would only play the same songs in one hour sets. But in Hamburg, the Beatles had to play different versions. They performed rock and also jazz to cover for eight hours.
Over the course of only 18 months, the Beatles performed 270 nights in Hamburg. When they became popular in 1964, the band has already played live 1,200 times. That is what set them apart from all the other rock and roll bands. They had a lot of practice with live audience.
Hamburg was Beatles’ special opportunity. They became a beneficiary of the culture and community of Hamburg, Germany. As Philip Norman said, “They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back…they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs
Let’s take a look at the outliers of Silicon Valley. Their special opportunity came in the year 1975. It was when the personal computer Altair 8800 was released. The older computer models were expensive and very large. But Altair 8800 only costs $397. It can be assembled and used at home. Anyone can own it.
The era of personal computers started in 1975. If you are too old or too young at the time, you would not have the special opportunity. If you are born after 1958, you’re still in high school. But if you’re born before 1952, you’re probably already employed at IBM.
In 1975, IBM was already an established company in Silicon Valley. It earns billions by producing mainframe computers. Those old enough to work are already there. They are already making a nice living. But they belong to the old paradigm. They did not have the special opportunity.
The right age for the personal computer revolution is to be born around 1955. This generation were straight out of college in 1975. They had the opportunity to explore the possibilities of the modern computer. Who are the software billionaires born in 1955?
Bill Gates was born on October 28, 1955. His Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was born in January 21, 1956. They studied in Lakeside together. They are best friends and members of the Lakeside computer club.
Steve Jobs was born in February 24, 1955. Jobs was not from a rich family like Gates. He was adopted. But he was raised in Mountain View, California. It is the very center of Silicon Valley.
Jobs grew up in a neighbourhood surrounded by Hewlett-Packard engineers. He attended forums by HP scientists. He bought electronic spare parts in the flea markets of Mountain View.
When Steve Jobs was 12 years old, he found Bill Hewlett’s number in the phonebook. He called the co-founder of HP to ask for spare parts. Jobs did not only acquire the parts. He landed on a summer job at HP.
This is not to say that all business tycoons in the U.S. were born in 1955 and the 1830s. But there is a trend in their stories. We were so focused on individual achievement that we did not see the pattern.
These successful people had the special opportunity. They seized it and made the best out of it. They were born at a time when society was able to reward hard work. What they achieved was not only because of their own effort. The world they grew up with played a big part on their success.