From Starving Artist to Rising Star

Today we welcome  back regular guestblogger Dave Baldwin who dissects the philosophy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Enjoy!

Last month, I wrote about a burning question that’s been on my mind for years: how can creative people make more money from their efforts? Since writing that article, my gears have been turning about some deeper questions. What activity should we all bump to the top of our priority lists every single day? How does one go about discovering what he or she can do best? For insight into these questions, I turned to a book that’s been occupying my must-read list for several years: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell takes a close look at the factors that separate successful people from unsuccessful people. His central assertion: there is no such thing as a self-made success, and the world is not a meritocracy. I interpret Gladwell’s hypothesis to mean that you are a product of your family history, the culture in which you were raised, the wealth of your family, and the timing of your birth. The idea that champions “come from nothing” and create a legacy from pure hard work, according to Gladwell, is patently false. At first, I found this idea depressing. Could it be that meteoric success is really just a matter of luck? I couldn’t accept that idea, but I eventually came to realize that this wasn’t what Gladwell meant at all.

Gladwell cites the Canadian hockey league as an example of how birth timing influences opportunity. Players born during the early months of the year are systematically more likely to rise to the professional leagues, as Gladwell shows with hard statistical data. During adolescence, the January 1 cutoff date effectively ensures that January babies, who will have had to wait a year longer to start playing hockey due to their late birthdays, will be bigger and more developed than younger players who made the cutoff and started during the same season. He goes on to state that the famous pioneers of the computer revolution—including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and a handful of others—were all born between 1953 and 1955, and that only people born during this window could have possibly had a chance to partake in the personal computer explosion that began in 1975.

Gladwell cites something called the “10,000-hour rule,” which essentially means that people become great in their chosen endeavors after they have logged 10,000 hours of practice. He cites The Beatles as an example of the 10,000-hour rule. The Beatles spent 10,000 hours on stage in Hamburg, Germany before coming to the United States. It was during these long nights of playing onstage in front of particularly harsh and unforgiving audiences that the Fab Four developed the signature sound that made them famous.

“Case closed,” I thought. Just pick something, do it for 10,000 hours, and I’ll have nailed it, right? Well…not so fast. Gladwell points out that it takes a decade to spend this length of time practicing anything, and that requires having the luxury of spending an average of twenty hours per week on your craft. He goes on to illustrate that this amount of leisure time is much more often available to those born in wealthy families. In addition, well-to-do children are more often taught the importance of cultivating talent by their parents. I felt myself deflating once again. But then, during a moment of silence, the real message of the book came through to me.

None of us can control the timing, culture, or circumstances into which we were born—but each of us was born at the perfect time for something. None of us can control or predict when or where our best opportunities will appear, but there are plenty of opportunities suited uniquely for each of us. I was born in 1977, the year when Elvis died and Star Wars came out—the year of the Fire Snake in Chinese astrology. If I follow Gladwell’s logic to its extreme, I arrive at the conclusion that there will soon be opportunities which are only open to people born between 1976 and 1978. Applying the principles in Outliers, the only thing I can do is start preparing for those opportunities.

How does one prepare for the perfect opportunity, not knowing when and where it will come? The 10,000-hour rule seems to be a good place to start. There are a few questions to ask before beginning to apply this rule. What do you enjoy doing enough that you’d be willing to commit twenty hours per week to it for the next ten years? What can you spend twenty hours per week doing—given your current situation—and still meet all of life’s other obligations? What would you have to change, quit, or give up in order free up those twenty hours if you don’t currently have them available?

Over Memorial Day weekend, I wrote over 40,000 words in three days. This is the first time I ever hammered out a manuscript in one sitting. Oddly, I had no particular reason for doing it, other than the fact that I was confused. I asked myself how I might be able to clear my head. Then, I realized what has historically worked every single time: an excruciatingly long writing session. Normally, I write 5,000 to 10,000 words. This time, I couldn’t stop. It was as if the words were just streaming out of me. I ended up with a draft manuscript, but more importantly, a clear path to accomplishing my creative goals.

Later, when I read Outliers, the answer came to me. I decided to undertake a personal challenge: writing one million words in the next year. Today is my first day of the challenge, which ends on June 10, 2013. It will take me about 1,000 hours to write a million words. If Gladwell is correct, this should take me about a tenth of the way to the 10,000-hour mark. I may choose to repeat this challenge every year for ten years, but I may also decide to tweak it a bit next year. In any case, if I want to have my creative breakthrough by 2022, I’d best get started now. There may be a great opportunity that will show up around my 45th birthday, and it may take me the next ten years to prepare for it.

I’m not counting on Gladwell’s hypothesis to be true. I see this as a game. Next month, I’ll be ready to share about what’s happened during the first 30 days of the game. In the meantime, give some thought to this idea for yourself.

Your Turn:

What have you always wanted to do, and what do you suppose might happen if you devoted 20 hours per week to it for the next ten years?

Dave Baldwin is a writer and editor who lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find more of Dave’s writings on his blog about writing, creativity, and business.

Posted in: Book Reviews

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