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Outliers – Book review

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‘Outliers, The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell – book review


As an artist, the idea of wanting to make an impressive declaration through your work, and reaching for the top is understandable; this happens in almost any field, not just in art.  Quite often I look at other artists and the people who have gone before me and think, what can I learn from them and also what am I looking for?  In his book ‘Outliers, The Story of Success,’ Malcolm Gladwell believes that we often focus on people’s personalities and intelligence. “Our hero was born in modest circumstances,” Gladwell writes, “and by virtue of his own grit and talents fights his way to greatness,”  However, it is Malcolm Gladwell’s belief that by focusing on personal descriptions we often miss things like, hidden advantages, extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies.  In other words, Outliers is written to help to unravel how some people got to the top.


The author, Malcolm Gladwell was born in 1963 in the UK.  As a child, he moved with his family to Canada.  Although Gladwell didn’t find his feet when he went to college, he did later, making a career from his insatiable appetite for learning. He has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1996.


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Gladwell often follows up on fascinating exchanges with people in different fields by later spending long periods of time in the library looking deeper into the sparks of interest that were raised.  This scrutiny of knowledge has lead Gladwell to writing six books.  He recognises that spending large amounts of time in libraries is the best way to make thematic links. Gladwell often sifts aimlessly through countless books and academic works on various subjects like social sciences.  He is looking for that spark of interest that will lead to his next successful piece of writing.


Gladwell notes about his personal journey, “I was a basket case at the beginning, and I felt like an expert at the end.  It took 10 years-exactly that long.”


Outliers, (2008) is Malcolm Gladwell’s third book. In it, Gladwell looks at how environment, drive and motivation impact the possibility of success.  In chapter two, titled, ‘The 10,000-Hour Rule,‘ Gladwell discusses the part that I found most intriguing.  He looks at how long it took for a variety of successful people from different disciplines to practice their skills before achieving success.

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stuart bush, outliers, malcolm gladwell, 10000 hour rule

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, 10000-hour rule

It is Gladwell hypothesis in this chapter that excellence at performing a complex task requires a certain minimum amount of time.  “Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”  Daniel Levitin, the neurologist says in Gladwell’s book. “In study after study, composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminal…no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.”


Our attention is drawn to people like Mozart, Bill Joy, Bill Gates and the Beatles amongst others.  For instance, Lennon and McCartney played for seven years before arriving in America in 1964.  It was at the ten-year mark in 1967 when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles [White Album] arrived. At this point in their careers, to people on the other side of the pacific ocean, they appeared to be a full-formed successful band.


As well as playing and practising in Britain, the Beatles had the opportunity to play in Hamburg in preparation for their later success.  Gladwell notes on the five trips The Beatles made to Hamburg, they played seven nights a week, often eight hours a day.  It is estimated that they played an astonishing 1200 times by 1964; more than most band play in their whole career.


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“They were no good on stage when they went [to Hamburg] and they were very good when they came back.  They learned not only stamina, they had to learn an enormous amount of numbers, not just rock and roll, but a bit of jazz too.  They weren’t disciplined onstage at all at the beginning.  But when they came back to Britain they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”  claims Norman as stated in the book who apparently know the Beatles well.


The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop in almost any field is certainly an interesting notion. 10,000 hours over 10 years is 20 hours a week.  My mind immediately wonders how does that relate to a visual artist’s career. With art being such a broad field of different subjects, from painting to photography to sculpture, performance and video etc. it is interesting to consider how that rule can be helpful.


It is possible to imagine spending 10,000 hours just learning and mastering the art of making work and understanding creativity.  Building up foundational knowledge in a range of techniques. However, spending 10,000 hours won’t necessarily mean you have mastered any subject in art.  But it might be enough to find out which direction the artist wants to pursue.

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My intuition tells me, it would take dedicated practice with a controlled theme or skill with an unchangeable structure to understand the real nuance of the subject.  In this view, the 10,000-hour rule is a helpful guide to understand the subtleties, gradations and distinctions of a single artistic field.


It also leads to the question of what else is needed for a successful career in the arts.  Like Gladwell says, hidden advantages from the environment, opportunities and legacies also impact on success.  Mindset, courage, the ability to overcome fear, having support networks and a peer group can in my view also play a massive part.


Malcolm Gladwell highlights in his book, that many people are clearly not born brilliant.  It takes more than natural ability to gain an understanding of the skills required.  It additionally not only takes a massive amount of practice, but it also matters how you practice.

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I thoroughly enjoyed reading Gladwell’s book.  I found it food for thought.  It gives a brief outline of the chain of events that can lead people to success.   I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in delving deeper into their field while they are striving for that success.   Although the book doesn’t give any answers that guarantee success, it highlights how complicated it can be and that it requires a lot more than talent and hard work. For me, the book just starts the conversation about the story to success.


My rating four out of five.

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