Writing I Love – Malcolm Gladwell – Outliers

Having and stimulating your Growth mindset is key for leaders, and so investing time to read widely as well as deeply is one way to give focus to this.  With that in mind, each Saturday I post “Writing I Love”. Sometimes a business book, sometimes a leadership quote, often something more esoteric, such as a poem, novel, song lyric. 


The other day I posted “Ben Hogan: Deliberate Practice” and referenced in it the “10,000 hour” rule from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

I was a little shocked at myself to realise that in all the many daily posts on this site, so far I had not actually mentioned Malcolm Gladwell in my weekly “Writing I Love” posts. Time to remedy that.

Gladwell’s books have been wonderfully catalysing for me for many years. After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, for over a decade I focussed almost entirely on financial and other metrics as the answers to building value in a business. However, I then came to realise that people and culture within organisations are also massively important, so I started studying widely and deeply to understand how “people and profit”, “commercial and cultural” elements of business, in combination, drive value.

Of course, where I am now is that I feel I have a pretty deep understanding of both, so now focus on leadership and working with leaders, and one part of that is to eclectically look at what makes a great leader, hence the very varied nature of posts on this site!

So, to Gladwell. He is a master storyteller, not an economist, not a psychologist, not an academic. He is also massively curious and so takes passionate interest and lots of time and research into finding and diving deep into what drives people. HIs books smack of wisdom, my personal definition for wisdom being: “something concise that, once you hear it, you feel you always knew it”.

His stories resonated for me years ago when I was focussing on how human behaviour fed into value, and he is often labelled as being in the field of Behavioural Economics, with economics (or at least the way the world still sees that field in 2018) being about measurable value.

These days I also look at his stories through the lens of leadership and understanding leaders.

Whichever angle you look at it through, I encourage you to treat yourself to reading his books, and I’d start with Outliers, and start with the 10,000 hour rule as one of the themes in the book.

“This is a book about outliers, about men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary. Over the course of the chapters ahead, I’m going to introduce you to one kind of outlier after another: to geniuses, business tycoons, rock stars, and software programmers.” ~ Gladwell

This is not about experts, this is about those who are truly outliers.

Throughout the book, Gladwell tells stories about such people, and one consistent theme he found is that they all put in many thousands of hours of practice, and not just practice, but deliberate practice.  Again, see the post linked above referencing Ben Hogan.

Now, since the book came out, academics and (in particular) sports scientists have looked to debunk the idea, but to me the essence is clear. It takes talent AND hard work AND opportunity to become a true outlier.

As Gladwell wrote in 2014 :

“There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 hour rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn’t apply to sports. And practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.”

As is clear from reading the personal parts of this site, being a father is core to my being, and so sometimes (ok, very often!) that means I talk about my sons.

So, let me give an example to illustrate what Gladwell meant with this clarification to “debunk the debunkers”.

When my oldest son was leaving Cayman to go to University in the UK and swim as part of the world-class Loughborough Swimming community, his coach, Andy Copley, spoke with the whole of Stingray Swim Club one day on deck to celebrate his young leader. In that talk, Coach Andy referenced that he had done his own calculations and that at some point in that last season in Cayman, Alex had hit his own 10,000 hours of practice. To save you the calculations, that was nearly 10 years of an average of around 20 hours practice per week.

So, what then happened as Alex went off to Loughborough? Was he a good swimmer. Yes. Was he a most welcome contributor, squad member, teammate within the programme? Yes. Did he compete at several major international events, culminating in the World Championships in 2016? Yes. Was he in the top ~1% of all swimmers at the peak of his career? Yes. Did he, however, win medals at major international events? No. It takes more than practice and dedication to be an Outlier.

Not everyone is an outlier then, but we can all, as Mark Beaumont puts it, achieve our own personal “80 days”, and when we find what our personal best can be, there is so much positive to be said for going for it, committing to it, putting in thousands of hours of deliberate practice.