Finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers. I’m late to the game on this one, so I’ll skip the full review and instead point to some good summaries about the book here, here, and here. I have other fun stuff I want to cover today.
For me, this book was his best yet. Gladwell’s gift is he is an amazing storyteller, and in this book he once again takes semi-boring academic research and makes it deeply relevant and interesting by crafting a beautiful story around it.
Here’s a short synopsis of Outliers. I decided to write it in the form of a limerick. I have no idea why.
Some folks become world-class Outliers,
Achieving success we can’t help but admire,
But smarts and ambition,
Aren’t the only pre-conditions,
Great timing and practice are required.
Basically, Gladwell is saying you can be the smartest guy on Earth and achieve nothing worth mentioning. But incredible, world-class success (think Bill Gates, Mozart, the Beatles) is a mashup of being born at the right time in the right place to the right people with the right genetic makeup while having the right things occur to you at exactly the right times in your life.
Oh, and you need to get in 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at your craft.
This last concept really got to me. The idea that in order to become an expert in your field, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice has been covered extensively. In fact there are two other books out describing the research behind this assertion, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.
Hearing the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs stories of perfect timing and early practice in Gladwell’s book started me thinking about a few things.
Gates had access to a mainframe computer when he was in the eighth grade in the late 60s when almost no one had access to computers. He had his 10,000 hours of programming practice before he was 20 years old.
Jobs grew up next door to a prominent Hewlett Packard engineer who gave him all sorts of rejected electronic parts to play with at a time when no one had computer stuff at home. Oh and they were both born within 6 months of each other in 1955 (many other prominent technology entrepreneurs were born about the same time, it turns out).
Both Gates and Jobs had their 10,000 hours of practice in at a very young age. As did Mozart. And the Beatles. And Tiger Woods. There’s a great op ed piece on the subject in the New York Times here.
So this book made me wonder… Have I practiced 10,000 hours at anything? Or am I a jack of all trades, master of none, like I always suspected?
Well, I’ve mentioned before I play bass in a honky-tonk band. So how many hours of practice do I have on bass? I played for about 5 years in high school/college bands, practiced maybe 5 hours a week total. Then quit playing until about 5 years ago when we started The Swingin’ Johnsons. I probably play (generously) 5 hours a week now.
5 hrs x 52 weeks x 10 years = 2,600 hours.
Not even close. Which you’d know if you’d ever seen me play bass. I’m no expert.
How about poker? I was totally into online poker for a while, and got to the point where I was pretty good (although I quit playing a few years ago).
10 hrs x 52 weeks x 2 years = 1,040 hours.
Still not close.
Then it hit me. I’ve been at Red Hat helping build a business model around open source for 10 years. I started at Red Hat when there were very few people building businesses on participation models and successfully selling free software. We have built a profitable business model (not just a successful development model) around the open source way, which few others have done to this day.
I got in my practice when open source was still being called an “intellectual property destroyer” and a “cancer.” Now the development model is used by almost every technology company, including Microsoft.
I know a lot of other people who have been in the open source business for ten years or more. By my calculations:
40 hrs x 50 weeks (accounting for vacation time) x 10 years = 20,000 hours.
Holy smokes! That’s double what I need!
So those of you reading this who have worked in open source for 5 years or more should be very happy about the opportunity in front of you. You helped create a development model and business model that are profoundly influencing the direction of 21st century business. You got started early and got your practice in before many others had even heard much about open source.
I’m no Outlier myself, but you may be the next Steve Jobs, Mozart, or Tiger Woods. In fact, I’m guessing at least one of you probably is.