The things every high-achiever should know
In: Achieving Goals22 Jun 2010
“Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”
This is a quote taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, in which he gives case study after case study to demonstrate how very successful people arrive at that level. His conclusion is that individual merit alone is not what allows someone to be successful. Rather, a whole host of factors—including random luck, fortunate upbringing, and cultural legacy—all interplay with individual merit and hard work, propelling some people towards success and viciously holding others back. After reading through this book, I have to admit, he’s absolutely right.
The way you were brought up can have a gripping effect on how you perceive the world. And many people cannot break out of that perception. On top of this, the way things work for anything one might wish to participate in can be unfair to those who weren’t given a special advantage early in life. Gladwell explains:
“It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”
This is the sobering conclusions of Gladwell’s Outliers. It’s true that no matter how much someone tries to pursue something, bad luck and lack of opportunities can always keep him down. For example, learning about nutrition, eating healthy, and exercising—all of which happen to be within our control—pales in comparison to having been unlucky enough to spend 20 years growing up in a severely industrially-polluted area in a house adjacent to a cell phone tower, which has doomed the people in the surrounding area to an irreversible life of poor health. And the individual who grew up in a poverty-stricken area with a horribly lacking educational system will have a much harder time preparing herself academically for college, let alone being able to pay her way through, assuming she wasn’t able to secure scholarships.
These are truths that must be taken into account when pursuing any meaningful goal in life. Life is unfair and can take away your good fortune as easily as it was given to you. But that does not change one meaningful fact: Despite life’s inherent unfairness, there are indeed factors that you can control, and just because you cannot control all of your circumstances, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do everything in your power to shape your life as you desire it to be.
Amidst the case studies of how powerful luck and upbringing can be, Gladwell gives us the 10,000 hour rule, in which he argues that it takes 10,000 hours of sheer practice to truly master something. He cites the stories of the Beatles and Bill Gates to support this rule. This is the individual merit portion of the book. In other words, if your luck and upbringing allow you the time and means to acquire 10,000 hours of practice, you have the opportunity to become very successful (an “outlier”).
Although this rule is backed by a certain degree of scientific research, many people have refuted the 10,000 hour rule by citing cases of people who became wildly successful in their chosen field without putting in nearly as many hours. Seth Godin has clarified the 10,000 hour rule into what I like to call the “work-until-you’re-the-best” rule:
“You win when you become the best in the world, however ‘best’ and ‘world’ are defined by your market. In many mature markets, it takes 10,000 hours of preparation to win because most people give up after 5,000 hours. That’s the only magic thing about 10k… it’s a hard number to reach, so most people bail.”
Side note: Seth Godin has written an outstanding book on this very concept: “The Dip”. I have been recommending “The Dip” ever since I first read it. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this life-changing book.
So yes, your upbringing, luck, and the way the “system” operates where you grew up will play enormous roles in determining your “starting point” in life. And for many extreme cases, such as gripping poverty or a repressive culture, this can be enough to prevent someone from ever beginning the long, tumultuous, but ultimately rewarding journey to success. However, for most of us, that fall somewhere in the middle, the starting point given to us by our life circumstances should only be just that—a starting point. From there, it’s time to outwork everyone else you’re competing with.
That’s where mindset comes in. If someone can actually reach the point where they understand the positive and/or negative role that their upbringing, culture, and self image plays in their ability to succeed in their calling, they can immediately begin to rework and undo the mental blocks and negative beliefs that have been influencing their actions. For facilitating this process, I strongly recommend the book Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz
While it is a very true account of how success is often achieved, the unfortunate consequence of Outliers is that it will likely convince a great deal people that, because individual effort alone is not what makes someone successful, there is no point to putting in the long hours to try and succeed. It gives people an excuse to say: “I wasn’t born with an amazing opportunity like Bill Gates or The Beatles. My life circumstances and my upbringing haven’t given me the opportunity I need to be successful, so it’s not even worth trying to pursue my goal when I have my whole set of circumstances working against me.”
This sort of self-talk is a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because you determine that your life circumstances aren’t ideal, you end up not putting in true effort, which ultimately results in the failure that you predicted. Don’t fall into this trap.
If you truly want to succeed, do whatever is in your control to get those 10,000 hours in. And that’s the real takeaway here.
As always, please feel free to share your thoughts below in the comments section. This is a topic I’m still researching and I’d love to hear your ideas on the matter.
The Dip by Seth Godin
Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz
Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard
I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart, and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I hack my way to happiness and fulfillment.
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