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Book review: Outliers and the keys to success

Great story here by Malcolm Gladwell in the latest issue of The New Yorker ("Most Likely to Succeed").

Outliers: The Story of Success

By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Company

$30.99

Imagine it's 1968 and you're in Grade 8. The parents at your school buy the best computer on the market. The computer's better than anything you'd find at most colleges and universities. And best of all, you get to spend all your free time doing computer programming in the school basement.

Another parent at the school starts a business that leases computer time to local companies. The parent recruits you and your classmates to test software programs in exchange for free programming time. And when that business goes under, another company comes along and offers the same deal.

In one seven-month stretch, you and your friends clock 1,575 hours of computer time, which works out to eight hours a day, seven days a week.

By your senior year of high school, you're doing programming full-time and getting mentored by one of the smartest programmers in the field.

So what do you do when you grow up? You found a company called Microsoft and become one of the world's richest men.

Now imagine it's the early 1960s. You're in a high school rock band. You're not very good. But then out of the blue you get an offer to play at strip clubs in Germany. The audience doesn't pay attention and the acoustics are brutal. You play eight-hour gigs, seven days a week. You perform 270 times within a year and a half.

By the time you launch your British Invasion in 1964 and become the world's most famous rock band, you've already performed together 1,200 times.

Bill Gates and The Beatles are outliers. They're part of that select group who make the extraordinary seem ordinary. They're phenomenally successful and we aspire to be just like them. We buy magazines, read books and take courses, seminars and workshops that promise to unlock the secrets to their success.

We've bought into the myth that outliers are just smarter and more talented than the rest of us mere mortals. They have more pluck and initiative. More grit. More drive and determination.

But author Malcolm Gladwell argues that maybe outliers are just luckier.

"What truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent, but their extraordinary opportunities," says Gladwell. "The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth."

According to Gladwell, outliers aren't self-made. They don't rise from nothing. "They are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It's not enough to ask what successful people are like. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't."

One of the keys to success is reaching the magic number of 10,000 hours. According to researchers, that's how long you have to practice to be perfect. "The emerging picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything," says neurologist Daniel Levitin.

"No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

The 10,000-hour rule has some profound implications. Few, if any, young adults can put in the hours on their own. They need a family and a community that's encouraging and supportive. They can't afford to be poor. If they're working part-time to make ends meet, there aren't enough hours left in the day for practising. And they somehow need to get into a special program or have an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity sent their way, like unlimited access to a state-of-the-art computer in their school basement or a year-and-a-half long gig at German strip clubs where no one cares that they can't play all that well.

"It is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them," says Gladwell.

"To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success — the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history — with a society that provides opportunities for all."

So what does that world look like? It looks like the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx. It's a middle school where students are chosen by lottery. Three-quarters of the kids come from single parent families and 90 per cent qualify for free or reduced lunches.

They're poor, but they're smart. Math scores are far above what kids are achieving at other schools in the Bronx. Ninety per cent get scholarships to private or parochial high schools. Eighty per cent graduate from high school and go on to college.

Why are KIPP kids so successful? Because they're getting that gift of time and opportunity that's so integral to success. School starts at 7:30 a.m., ends at 5 p.m. and carries over into July. KIPP Academy students get 50 to 60 per cent more time to learn than traditional public school students. And that's a huge benefit because research by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander shows that poor kids learn nothing when they're not in school, yet outperform rich kids while they're in class. If school is in session the entire year the achievement gap between rich and poor disappears.

"Schools work," says Gladwell. "The only problem with school, for kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it."

So if we're serious about making Hamilton the best place to raise a child and if we want every kid to have the same shot at becoming the next Bill Gates, or Beatles, then you, me and everyone else in our community has to ask the same question. How do we give them the gift of 10,000 hours?

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