How Successful People Rise on a Tide of Advantage

Wink wink

Why do some people succeed, having remarkable and productive productive lives, while so many more never reach their potential?

Culture, especially American culture, would have us believe success is the product of individual effort. We would like to believe hard work pays off. But the truth is as usual a little more complex.

In a recent interview, Malcolm Gladwell talks about his 2009 book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He wrote the book to figure out what crates success and why. He says:

The point of Outliers is, I mean, there’s a number of points. But one is that I wanted people to move away from the notion of success as something individual. And I wanted to get people to understand that a lot of success has to do with chance, with the contribution of your culture, your generation, your family. There’s this kind of heroic notion of the lone genius — it’s very popular in the United States — and I wanted to say to people that notion has no — very little — basis in reality.

Yet, people mostly walked away with “the 10,000-hour rule.” That if we commit to doing the work for at least that long, we would make it. The number comes from the work of Anders Ericsson along with that of other researchers.

It prompts us to focus on quantitative information. But nobody likes “it depends” as an answer.

Says Gladwell:

no one is more surprised than me that that was the average takeaway. The 10,000-hour stuff that I put in Outliers was really only intended to perform a very specific narrative function — or, not narrative function, but kind of argumentative function — which was, to me the point of 10,000 hours is: if it takes that long to be good, you can’t do it by yourself.

If you have to play chess for 10 years in order to be a great chess player, then that means that you can’t have a job, or maybe if you have a job it can’t be a job that takes up most of your time. It means you can’t come home, do the dishes, mow the lawn, take care of your kids. Someone has to do that stuff for you, right?

That was my argument, that if there’s an incredibly prolonged period that is necessary for the incubation of genius, high-performance, elite status of one sort or another, then that means there always has to be a group of people behind the elite performer making that kind of practice possible. And that’s what I wanted to say.

But that is not what the great majority of people heard or read into it. The problem is a statement included in the book that makes the number official, “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” Because it is easier to focus on as a target to reach, it stuck.

There's a cognitive bias called anchoring. Marketers and business people use it all the time to put a stake in the ground when it comes to pricing.

For an everyday example of this principle, we can look at solicitations for donations. The note comes with pre-printed amounts —$25, $50, $100. Providing suggestions takes care of what in organizations we often refer to as “blank paper syndrome.” It focuses on picking one, typically the middle one says research, due to its multiple choice format. Something very familiar in the American education system.

In The Undercover Economist Tim Harford highlights price anchoring by explaining coffee pricing and customer purchasing choices. Another example is in supermarkets — they rearrange the information they provide putting some goods next to non competitive others to sell more of certain items.

“The 10,000-hour rule”

Ericsson's “rule” repeated in Gladwell's book became the anchoring factor by virtue of being a quantifiable data point rather than an emotional one. We focus on one thing and are blind to additional information. In the same chapter where the number and magic were part of the same sentence, Gladwell included more information:

elsewhere in that same chapter, there is a very explicit moment where I say that you also have to have talent. That, what we’re talking about with 10,000 hours is: how long does it take to bring talent to fruition?

To take some baseline level of ability and allow it to properly express itself and flourish. Ten thousand hours is meaningless in the absence of that baseline level of ability. I could play music for 20,000 hours. I am not becoming Mozart — never, ever, ever. I can play chess for 50,000 hours, and I am not becoming a grandmaster — ever, ever, ever.

“What it means to be talented is to take joy in obsessive practice,” says Gladwell. 

Deliberate practice

Mastering skills, even in the presence of some or a modest amount of talent, takes practice.

In Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin says Deliberate Practice is designed to improve performance, works through repetition, relies on constant feedback for improvement, it's hard and thus mentally demanding, requires a good understanding of goals to ladder steps to get there.

Not just any kind of practice. It should be deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson had this insight in his research. That it's not just any kind of practice, but deliberate practice —diligent effort combined with intelligent feedback.

Talking about his own experience of mastering writing skills, Gladwell says:

one of the reasons I was drawn to Anders Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice is that I did recognize a little of that in my own approach to my particular profession, discipline.

So this notion of not just applying yourself in a very dedicated fashion to what you do, but also actively considering, reconsidering, identifying weaknesses, striving to correct those weaknesses — I mean this sort of ongoing, what in the world of automotive manufacturing they refer to as “continuous improvement” — that was something that always came naturally to me.

There was never a moment when I was precious about my writing. In fact, I always welcomed people telling me what was wrong with it, because I always wanted to do it just a little better the next time. And I mean, that in a very colloquial way is what I think he’s getting at is: are you someone for whom the wheel never stops turning? You’re always looking for some way to do it a little bit better next time around.


But the amount of time necessary to make that improvement might be two or three X what you think it is. To me, that is his [Ericsson's] core observation. And that, to me, is an incredibly valuable, insightful observation. And I’m happy just with that.

Now, it so happens that I think he wants to go a step further and say, “If you do that kind of very devoted, long-running diligent practice, you don’t need a lot of kind of” — call it what you will — “raw talent when you begin.” My position is: you don’t have to say that.

As is often the case, the context that surrounds the research matters. So when we look at data, it's useful to understand the goals and reference points that frame the reason for conducting such research. It matters to application.

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson talks about the Beatles. Ericsson et all say:

So to us the Beatles, and I think a lot of people would agree, what made them outstanding was their composing of a new type of music. It wasn’t like they excelled at being exceptional instrumentalists.

So if we want to explain here their ability to compose this really important music, deliberate practice should now be linked to activities that allow them to basically improve their compositional skills and basically get new feedback on their composition. So counting up the number of hours they perform together wouldn’t really enhance the ability here to write really innovative music.

In Outliers, Gladwell says part of the reason for achieving the success was because they played for a prolonged period of time in the clubs in Hamburg. In other words, while Ericsson says being derivative (instrumentalists) did not play a role in improving their composition skills, Gladwell says it did too, “they had played together 1,200 times — played live, 1,200 times by the time they came to America in 1964.”

At the same time, we are talking about talented musicians —John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison— playing together for hours and hours. Something good was bound to happen out of that.

It turns out that the tide of advantage —the answer we all look for— is “it depends.” Heritage, environment, including family ties, talent, and deliberate practice. But we should not forget the role of luck in our lives.

With a little luck, indeed.


Can we program our mind for success?