My dissatisfaction with the current overbearing schedule for students in high school, has led me to do quite a bit of reading. (To see my reading list for books about success and education, click here.) One of the first books I read was Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcom Gladwell.
In the first half, Gladwell showed how the success of Outliers can be tied to luck, to timing, to “Opportunity.”
In the second half, Gladwell showed how the success of Outliers is also affected by where you come from and your culture, “Legacy.”
In my third post, I looked at my own conclusions from Outliers about what you needed to do to be successful. Hint: It has nothing to do with being a straight-A student.)
But the book is about what makes people an outlying success, like Steve Jobs. What factors does Gladwell think it takes to be an outlying success? Obsession.
Aside from the fact that as a culture we are starting to treat people with outlying success as superstars (which is arguably more worthwhile than turning reality television stars into famous people), this notion of wanting “outlying success,” is also starting to affect college applications of the “Ivies.” You’ll find information that what the “top” colleges are looking for is no longer multi-AP, straight A, perfect SAT score students, but students who stand out.
I used to find this hopeful, and in fact ordered a book about this, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) by Cal Newport, who goes into developing what he calls a “deep interest” and really excelling at it. But the more I researched it, the more it seemed that you have to have this really outlying success to beat the odds, like starting a successful non-profit or popular blog. The odds are stacked against you, and there are parts you have no control over. In short, you can get into a “good” college if you’re lucky. (What’s debatable is what is a “good” college. The prevailing wisdom, that the Ivies want you to believe, is that only a few select schools can give you a good education.)
Let’s look at the factors Gladwell has determined lead to outlying success. Some of them are controllable, and some of them are not.
- Uncontrollable: timing, opportunities, family background
- Controllable: dedication, drive, 10,000 hours of practice
I think it’s important to concentrate on what you can control, not what you can’t.
The conclusion I drew from Outliers was that in order to achieve success you have to be willing to put in the time, the dedication, and indeed the obsession to get to the 10,000 hours required to make you stand out. Along with this, you need to have or develop the practical intelligence to get what you need from other people.
However, if you do that and still don’t find “outlying” success, don’t despair. Because luck, history, and community have a hand in it, too. This can be a hard to accept when you’ve worked so hard, but maybe the answer lies not so much in accepting defeat, as realizing that you don’t have to have achieved the success of an Outlier, to still be a success. There are degrees of success.
For those with the drive to get to this point, realizing this might be harder than the actual work itself.
So how would this apply to high school? Because, after all, that’s the reason I set out on this quest.
If the traditional school definition of the path to success with punishingly hard classes and stellar grades doesn’t really help you learn the true path to life-long success, then what does?
Let’s go back to the computer mega-stars for a bit. Everyone knows that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are famous for not graduating from college. While Steve Jobs route seems to have been a bit more circuitous and rebellious, perhaps Bill Gates was more of a case of recognizing an opportunity, and taking advantage of it when you see it.
But what about Bill Joy? Bill Joy did graduate from college. And he has a graduate degree from Berkeley. According to Outliers, Joy “had been voted ‘Most Studious Student’ by his graduating [high school] class.” But once he discovered programming at the University of Michigan, he recalls “I was spending more time in the Computer Science Center than on my classes…I was probably programming eight or ten hours a day…”
That probably didn’t result in a stellar GPA. But it did result in stellar success.
While the story of Bill Joy shows that you don’t have to discard a traditional education to be a success, I think the lesson is that you need to take the time to let yourself be obsessed with something, so you can learn a skill or gain expertise. It’s hard to do that if you’re taking a course load that takes up all your time doing what someone else thinks is important. In other words, it’s hard to find out what you will be successful at if you’re spending all of your spare hours doing homework and organized extra-curriculars.
Become obsessed with something you consider worthwhile, enjoy yourself, and let the chips fall where they may. Accepting that last part might be the hardest part of all.
For other analyses of Outliers, thoughts on the 10,000 hour rule, IQ, and success, check out the following:
So, what do you think? Is time in high school better spent acing all the hardest classes or finding a passion and practicing it? What did you do, and did it get you where you want to be?