In the book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell studied the “outliers” – i.e., the most successful people of the world, including sportsmen, business people, musicians and scientists, to understand key factors behind their success. He found the key denominator to all their success isn’t natural aptitude as many like to believe. Having a high IQ doesn’t guarantee success : There is supposedly no difference in people’s propensity to success beyond an IQ of 130.
The key denominator is actually hard work. A lot of it, in fact. About 10,000 hours of it. That’s roughly 3 hours every day, for 10 consecutive years, before any one of them began to be defined as the ‘expert’ in their field.
This finding doesn’t come across as shocking. I feel the concept of natural talent has become overrated, right along with self-discipline. Often times, I see people around letting go of their dreams because they do not have the “talent”. Having an innate ability is definitely a nice bonus and great enabler, but the role it plays is lesser than what many may think.
While the aptitude to get an initial head start, beyond a certain stage, success becomes increasingly dependent on your attitude and the amount of work you put in, much more so than your aptitude. Hard work becomes the key determinant in the long haul. As Thomas Edison puts it: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.
As what Malcolm has found, even in fields such as sports and music where many see the key to success as having an innate ability, consistent hard work has proven to be the more superior factor by far. This is the case for many established names, such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Johnny Wilkinson, Bill Gates, Beatles, Beethoven and Madonna. For most (if not all) of them, their hard work started right as a kid. It was through relentless training since young before they attained their level of expertise today.
Here are specific examples of how top performers came to develop their talent through hard work:
#1. Victoria Pendleton’s emphatic gold in the women’s sprint cycling in Beijing came only after humiliating defeat in Athens four years ago. After training for four hours a day, six days a week the 27-year-old finally reaped the rewards. (from Times Online)
#2. Rebecca Adlington, the 19-year-old swimmer who won two gold medals at the Beijing Games, has put in an estimated 8,840 hours of training since the age of 12. (from Times Online)
#3. The Beatles burst onto the world stage in the 1960s, seemingly lifted from their hometown of Liverpool and dropped into the world’s biggest venues. But theirs was not an overnight success. One of the Beatles’ early gigs was performing near military bases in Hamburg, Germany; they would perform for eight hours a day, seven days a week. They did this for 270 days over the course of 18 months. By the time the Beatles enjoyed their first commercial success in 1964, they had performed 1,200 times, which is more than most bands today perform in their careers. When the Beatles first left for Germany, they weren’t very good. But by the time their Hamburg stints ended, they sounded like no other band in the world. They were well on their way to getting in their 10,000 hours. (from RCM)
#4. Generally regarded as a savant or a computer genius, Gates has a 10,000-hour story, too. Gates had the good fortune to attend a private school in Seattle that had a computer club. This was 1968, when most universities did not have a computer club. And Gates’ club didn’t have an ordinary computer — they had an ASR-33 Teletype, one of the most advanced computers of its day. Gates was hooked on computers and began programming in the eighth grade! This led to other experiences in Seattle, and by the time he graduated, Gates had practically lived in the computer lab for five years. He was closing in on 10,000 hours and was ready to take full advantage of the opportunities he soon would receive. (from RCM)
#5. By the age of 20, the best musicians at the Music Academy of West Berlin (as judged by the music professors) had practiced for about 10,000 hours, the “good” ones for about 8,000, and those trained to become teachers for about 5,000. (from Science Spectra)
#6. There are similar examples: Bill Joy, computer legend and founder of Sun Microsystems; Mozart, whose greatest compositions weren’t written until he had been composing for more than 20 years; and it takes roughly 10,000 hours to become a chess grandmaster. (from RCM)
Does that mean everyone who is successful in their niche is so because they have invested the 10,000 hours? No, not necessary. Some might have put in lesser hours; some perhaps more hours. The 10,000 figure should be treated as a reference point. The amount of work needed depends on the magnitude of your goal. The bigger the result you want to achieve, the more hard work required. If you want to be internationally renowned in your field, then 10,000 hours is definitely a minimum commitment.
Many people often tell me I have a talent for writing and everything I’m doing. They say they can’t do the same for nuts. I take it as a compliment on my skill levels, but the statement itself a big generalization on what it took to get there. My writing skills came from endless hours of writing. My site building and web design skills came from self-learning since I was in secondary school. My analytical skills came from continuous problem solving and introspection in school and at work.
Was I born with those skills as a baby? No, of course not. Was there a time when I was a greenhorn in those skills? Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’ve mastered those skills – I definitely haven’t put in my 10,000 hours and there’s still a huge amount of improvement areas. I see it as an ongoing, improvement process. While my ability to learn things fast has helped in the process, I wouldn’t have been able to develop those skills if not for the many hours put in learning.
If I look at all the capable people I know around me, the same applies for them too. All their skills have been acquired through time, hard work and experience. I can’t think of anyone who is just “born” with their skills.
If you ever come across instances where people achieved certain results seemingly due to aptitude than hard work, there’s a good chance hard work has been invested. It’s natural to jump to a conclusion that people achieve success without much work but closer examination usually reveals otherwise.
For example, when I was in school, there would be students who seem to breeze through tests and get great results. What many didn’t know was behind the great results were many extra hours spent in self-studying. Hours of private tuition their parents put them through. Assessment books done ad nauseum. Strong foundation in the subjects which came from earlier schooling years where more hard work was previously invested.
Another example: When I was in my previous job, there would be a handful of people who stood out against others. These were the same people who invested extra time in getting their craft right – whether it was on the work itself, collaboration skills networking, etc. Even in cases where the success was driven by some inherent talent, this talent probably took its roots from his/her past where due diligence was already invested in building those skills.
So why do so many people have a notion of talent as something innate only in certain people (as opposed to everyone)? I personally think it’s because people usually only see top performers when they have achieved a certain level of expertise. They don’t see endless hours invested before this expertise is attained. Without knowing that, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume they have always been this good all along. Another hypothesis I have is because the media tends to romanticize the successes of the “have’s” to increase their aspirational level, and one way they do that is by playing up on the successes rather than sharing how they got them.
Start Investing Your 10,000 Hours Today
Do you have a goal where you feel you don’t have the talent to make it? Whether you believe it or not, you already have the aptitude required to achieve your goal. The missing piece of the puzzle is not that you lack talent, but to invest the hard work.
Rather than see talent as something innate in only others, recognize that talent is innate in you as well. You just need to put in the hours to bring it out of you. If you start seeing talent = aptitude + hard work, where aptitude is already present in everyone and hard work is really the variable in the equation, you will have a lot more power over your goals.
- What are the areas you want to be talented in? Identify them.
- How do you plan to put in your 10,000 hours? How many hours can you invest every day? Draw out a plan. Your 10,000 hours should go into skill development and leveling up. Read Skills Development for more on this.
- How can you get started on this new plan? Work out your schedule.
In 10,000 hours, you will become the top talent in your field.
Check out the followup to this article: 10,000 Hours in Bejeweled
This is part of Skills Development series: