Unfortunately success is about hard work and practice

gladwell_malcolm_fThe great thing about being on holiday is that you have a chance to read and so learn more about what other people think. My first book of the holiday has been Outliers (Something classed differently from the main body) by Malcolm Gladwell.   I have read all of MG’s books and find his arguments persuasive and challenging. Although the level of detail can sometimes appear to be a distraction and full of information that on the face of it not relevant, if you stick with it and follow with a sense of adventure, you will be rewarded with a very well thought through, original and thought provoking idea (s).

Although the book is about success and so may help you become more successful, MG has avoided the “I can make you successful” title. It is sub titled the story of success but is more a journey of why different people have been successful and to some extent why others have not. He argues that success is less about your IQ and more about where you are from. It is more to do with your culture, attitude, willingness to work hard and practice, practice, practice.

This in many ways is the classic nature nurture argument. I do have to express a bias here, I love stories that are more about nurture, partly because as you may have picked up from earlier blogs, instinctively I like to think we have some control over our destiny rather than the idea that from the minute you are born your life is pre- determined.

And although it could be argued that MG makes the case that success is very much influenced by your culture and background, therefore making it less to do with the individual and so more predetermined. By explaining how people have become successful it removes many of the myths that people create, “He was so clever, you knew he would succeed”. “The reason he was successful is because he was a genius, if only I was a genius”.

Chapter by chapter and at times with no apparent relationship between them MG builds his argument.

  • The Roseto mystery – a culture is so strong that it resulted in a community becoming far healthier than others.
  • The Mathew effect – if you are successful you are more likely to be given opportunities that intern can lead to further success. That initial success may however be the result of the year you were born in! Check this out BBC news
  • The 10,000 hour rule – from Bill Gates to the Beatles they all have one thing in common, not genius but 10,000 hours of practice.
  • The trouble with genius – two chapters, a higher IQ does not make you more likely to be successful; you only have to be clever enough.  Oh and yes your background matters, having a high IQ does not equip you with all the skills you need for success.
  • The three lessons from Joe Flom – your culture can leave you with a legacy. For some that were successful it was an appreciation of ‘worthwhile work’. Work that was demanding and had a relationship between effort and reward.
  • Harlan Kentucky – a story of how a ‘culture of honour’ can mould the way people behave generations latter.
  • The ethnic theory of plane crashes – how a strong national culture can result in communication problems so bad that the plane crashes!
  • Rice paddies and math(s) tests – Asians are better at maths largely because what they have learned from planting rice! Although their language helps. These lessons have in turn created a successful culture. A culture of attention to detail (planting rice is precise) the harder you work and the harder you work the land, the more reward you get (Rice fields benefit from planting, there is very little fallow – ‘rest’) and there is a clear relationship between effort and reward (Growing rice is so hard that it is difficult to get others to do it. So if you can grow it, you benefit)
  • Marita’s bargain – wheat need a period of fallow to let the soil recover, rice fields improve the more they are worked. Is this the reason Asians work harder and take less holidays? Also it’s what you do in the holiday that makes your grades improve. And it’s not the brightest who succeed it’s those given the opportunity and have the presence of mind to seize it….
  • A Jamaican story – a personal account by MG as to where he came from and why his family were successful and yes it is to do with his background and culture.

I have taken time to summarise each chapter because there were some simple yet powerful messages in each one.  It is also helpful for me in coming to these final conclusions.

And so to the point….When studying you will almost certainly come across brighter and more intelligent people than yourself. People who seem to pick up information with little effort and score higher than you in every test they do, these people are destined for success! You may in turn make yourself feel that in some way you are less likely to succeed because they are so much better. This might result in you working less, feeling that there is little point as you will always be second third or maybe even last.

Working less will almost certainly mean you will achieve less and in turn this will become a self fulfilling prophecy. “See I told you I was not as good”.

The first thing to do is to recognise that you are doing this and the second is to take heart from the main themes within this book, which are:

Hard work and practice (10,000 hours) are key ingredients to success. MG argues that both Bill Gates and the Beatles benefited from practicing their respective skills for hours, days, weeks and years.

You don’t have to be a genius; you only have to be bright enough. MG makes a very convincing argument that higher IQ’s don’t result in greater success. You only have to be good enough…  an average IQ is fine and by definition most of us are average!

And finally it’s not the brightest who succeed, it’s those given the opportunities and having the presence of mind to seize them….So you should seek out opportunities, get yourself into positions where you will be given them and when given……take them.

Studying for an exam is one of those opportunities and with hard work, some self confidence and practice you are more likely to succeed and from that success more will follow, so says Mathew.

The sun is now out and so I must go – hope you enjoyed the blog


3 thoughts on “Unfortunately success is about hard work and practice

  1. Pingback: Big fish – little pond | Pedleysmiths's Blog

  2. I’m not convinced about the hard work /10,000 hours/ practice arguments and think that the Beatles (or anything to do with culture) is a pretty poor illustration. Reminds me of the famous Beatles quote – when asked if Ringo was the finest drummer in the world, Paul McCartney replied, “Finest drummer in the world? He’s not even the finest drummer in the Beatles!” Are you saying that Status Quo were successful because they worked so hard or practised so much? Yet how much hard work or practice does it need to play 3 chords? Did the Sex Pistols do 10,000 hours of practice or Oasis, for that matter. There must
    be loads of very talented musicians out there who have put in the hours and practice but got nowhere. I’m also unimpressed with the wheat field vs
    paddy field argument – whilst being a nice thought it is just too simplistic. Did everyone in the whole of Asia work in a paddy field? Is everyone in the whole of Asia good at maths? The driver for indigenous Asians is to get out of poverty – even boys will work hard at school (if they can get an education.) This contrasts markedly with the attitude and teaching of boys in our post industrial society.
    I spent 20 years as a solicitor in private practice working all hours – often until the early hours of the morning – and rarely taking holidays. 10 years ago I left legal practice and joined the sales team of Thomson Reuters. I still work harder than most of my colleagues (old habits are hard to break) but I probably work 2/3rds of the hours and take 2-3x more in holidays than I ever took as a solicitor yet now earn twice as much as I ever did in my previous life.
    Hard work isn’t always that productive – the fact that the jacket is on the back of the chair between 8am and 10pm doesn’t mean that the owner of the jacket is any more productive than someone who turns up at 9am and leaves on the dot at 5pm.
    The secret is not to work harder but to work smarter. Practice doesn’t make perfect – it merely ingrains a fault. Perfect practice makes perfect.


    • Simon as I would expect you make some very interesting and challenging observations. I will do my best to clarify and expand on the initial points made so as to provide some more thoughts and hopefully further explanation.

      Firstly the comment about practice, MG is not saying that everyone who is successful has practiced for hours and hours. Obviously some people are successful and may have put in little effort and practice, George Best perhaps. And yes of course lots of people work hard and don’t get the success they deserve. What MG is saying is that of the many successful people he looked at they were not on the whole that talented, they were not all George Best’s, they had talent but with the good fortune to have been born at the right time and with lots of practice they became one of the best or at least most well known within their field. Combine this with the Mathew effect, were people that do well are given the opportunity to do even better, this makes a very powerful cocktail from which to drink if success is your poison.

      Your comment on the paddy field is of course correct, it is far too simplistic to suggest that an entire nation would share the same work ethic because of an experience they had in a paddy field or perhaps even more remotely their ancestors had. There are however national cultures and having been to Asia many times I have observed firsthand the way in which Chinese students study, how hard they work and how they appear to be better at the mathematical based subjects than their European counterparts. A BBC report in 2007 Mathematicians set Chinese test suggested that the maths test are actually much harder in China. But even if we argue that this ethic is created by nurture, Chinese parents are certainly hard task masters when it comes to what they expect of their children, the question is where did the parents get their attitude from? Could it, just possibly, something to do with the way in which the vast majority of Chinese lived for thousands of years?

      And as this site is devoted to working or to be precise learning smarter I could not agree more with your final thought, work smart not hard. I can’t however help thinking what would happen if someone did work smart and hard……


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