Confessions of an Outlier
Six hours a day, 365 days a year, for 5 years. That’s all it takes. Or some combination of those numbers.
There are a handful of books every aspiring writer should read. One is Drive by Daniel Pink. Another is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The first will impress upon you the difficulty but necessity of self-motivation. The latter will demonstrate its cumulative power.
In Outliers, we learn that the rags-to-riches story of a lone genius overcoming odds is a false one. People often succeed because of cultural heritage, because of where and/or when they were born, because of chance occurrences, and because of opportunities seized. Small advantages become massive advantages. Young Canadian hockey players born in January, February, and March benefit from a year-end cutoff. These boys are larger and swifter than the rest of their cohort. 40% of the top players are born between January and March. Why? Because they are chosen for small differences, are placed into programs where they practice more, and so they get better than their peers. Much better.
One of the last chapters of the book will torment you. It details the progress kids make as they move through elementary school. The kids are grouped according to socioeconomic class. What researchers have found is that the achievement gap grows from 1st grade to 5h grade. Why this is has confounded education experts. Until someone began testing children at the beginning and end of every school year and compared gains over summer break with gains made during the school year. What they found — and you have to see the tables of numbers to appreciate this — is that all of the gains evident at 5th grade are made over the summer break, where low SES kids fall back and higher SES kids surge ahead. Schools aren’t failing kids as much as what they do (0r don’t do) when they aren’t in school is.
Gladwell also looks at several of the lone genius stories and shows how many of these people are products of their times. A list of the 75 wealthiest people in history, which goes all the way back to Cleopatra, shows that 20% were Americans born within 9 years of each other. Between 1831 to 1840, a group that includes Rockefeller, Carnegie, Armour, J.P. Morgan, George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Jay Gould were born. They all became fabulously wealthy in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, just as the railroad and Wall Street and other industries were exploding. Gladwell points out:
“If you were born in the late 1840s you missed it. You were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820s you were too old: your mind-set was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm. But there was a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held.”
I started writing in 2009. That was the year the Kindle 2 was released and the price of e-readers dropped below $300 and then below $250. In 2011, when KDP Select was announced, I was in the first cohort to join and begin using those 5 freebie days. Purely by accident, I was one of the early adopters of serialization, with shorter works priced at 99 cents and longer works priced above $2.99.
I know I’m not that good. I know others are just as good and a whole lot better. But two things Gladwell’s book harps on time and again are opportunity and hard work. For as long as I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve credited luck as a driving force. If I had started writing in 1999, I wouldn’t be sitting in my underwear pecking on a computer right now. (Well, I might, but I’d also be living in my mother’s basement.) If I had continued to procrastinate and had waited until 2019 to self-publish, my works might not have stood out or gained traction.
What can you do with the knowledge found in Outliers? You can learn the potential reward of putting in 10,000 hours of hard work. Even the story of Mozart is debunked, who didn’t hit his stride until he had his 10,000 hours invested. He just got them in earlier than most. I have easily averaged 6 hours a day, every day of the year, for 5 years. I did this with a job and a house to maintain. I did most of the cooking and cleaning during these years. It’s possible. It isn’t easy, but anyone can do it.
That’s the best lesson of this book. Kids from the Bronx graduate from elementary school, and 80% go off to college. When you read the hours they put in, you might be sad for them. I’m not. I’m proud of them. These are kids who get up at 5:30 in the morning and stay in school until 5:00 in the afternoon. They have a shorter summer break. They go to school on Saturday. It seems inhuman by American standards. Meanwhile, students in many Asian countries don’t have a summer break at all. They put in more hours. It’s the reason they score higher on some tests and do well at universities. What’s innate about them? They are from a culture that farms year-round rather than in a fallow-field cycle. Cultural effects that pervade a collective psyche and have enormous and intriguing outcomes.
When I tell people that I used to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to write before work, I’m giving them the secret to my success. That’s the confession of an outlier: I was writing at the right time(s). 2009. 5 am.
You might be reading this in 2014 at 5 pm. Guess what? It’s not too late. There’s tomorrow. And the day after. And it isn’t about getting rich; it’s about a different kind of wealth. If you’ve ever wanted to see what you are capable of, what kind of mark you can leave behind, you have to put in the hours. Outliers is full of remarkable stories of men and women who made the best of their opportunities. You should do yourself a favor and read it. Check it out on Amazon.