Outliers, 10,000 hours and the Generation 'Z'

I have just finished the new Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fantastic, but instead of give you a standard review I thought I would elaborate and theorise around a question of my own which hit me somewhere through the last third of the book.

“If it takes 10,000 hours to ever get really good at something, and teenagers today cannot focus for more than 5 minutes on one task, where will we be in 10 years time?

In the book, Gladwell discusses a clip of film depicting how a women named Renee went about solving a math problem. Renee, a nurse, has not done any maths since her days at school many years ago. In the clip, she struggles with a basic algebraic problem. It takes her a full 22 minutes, and a heap of iterations, to solve it. What does this mean? Renee is slow? She is terrible at maths? No. Not even the right question, according to Gladwell.

How can solving a maths problem in 22 minutes be a good thing? 

It simply highlights that Renee, for any number of reasons (which Gladwell elaborates on in the book), has the ability to work at a problem until it is solved.Gladwell goes on to interview a teacher who claims the average 8th grader would probably have a stab for a maximum of 5 minutes before asking him to show him to solve the problem.

The contention of Gladwells book, to me, was that success is dependant on a whole host of unique, often inherited, factors which each combine to create an environment where success is able to happen. There is no overnight success story – every successful person, event or idea is actually the result of a whole host of previous, even generational, occurrences and massive amounts of good ol’ fashioned hard work.

Small attention spans and success – the future?

So, if we take Gladwells contention to it’s most extreme point, we see a world where the youth of today (in the Western world, primarily) are potentially being disadvantaged by their own addictions to ‘noise.’ Many kids now don’t have attention span beyond 2 minutes, let alone 22. Watching my brother do homework earlier this year for his Year 12 exams really brought it home. He would sit himself in front of the computer, with MSN, MySpace and music on as well as a game of World of Warcraft on in the background. He gets his results on Monday.

The point I’m trying to make is, in a world where we really need 20 minutes to solve a basic problem and 10,000 hours to master a given subject, our new ability to multitask on 20 different items could create a real problem. Mark Sayers thinks many kids will face a ‘quarter-life crisis’ as they struggle to make meaning of their hyper-consumer lives. Anxiety looks set to become the new depression as the mental illness young people will ‘have to have’. (Excuse the Keating pun).

Mindfulness and ‘batching’ – the new TQM and Six Sigma?

I’ve riffed on Mindfullness before – but Outliers goes one step beyond simply saying we need to have discipline in our thoughts and actions. It goes to say that success is only born from incredibly hard work and intuitively aligned opportunities.

But how will this success be born in a generation (including myself here) who don’t really focus on any one thing for more than 3-5 minutes? Do we need to introduce an idea of Six Sigma quality into our thinking patterns? I’ll follow this up with another post when the thought has had a bit more time to stew, but for now here is my current train of thinking.

Six Sigma = Eliminate Defects*

Mindfulness = Eliminate Distractions**

* where a defect is anything that leads to customer dissatisfaction

**Where a distraction is anything which takes a persons individual focus away from solving a problem in the pursuit of mastery of a subject.


Do yourself a favour and buy the book. It’s a great read, and Gladwell has now truly mastered the art of capturing, synthesising and telling a ripping story that teachers and captures our world. Modern day Aesop? Huge call, but i’ll go with it. Enjoy!


11 thoughts on “Outliers, 10,000 hours and the Generation 'Z'

  1. Hey Steve,
    Great summary of the book and extension of his philosophies. I know we’ve chatted in the past about the 10,000 hours theory and I think you’re on to something – although there are other young people around who are absolute gems. Little masters that already at 19 or 25 who know certain subjects inside out. People who are truly passionate and dedicated to something.

    You also put the fear into me that there would be an algebra equation to finish the post!

  2. Nice twist on the ‘book review’ – I think it is an interesting point you make, but I don’t think the focussed/distracted crowds is anything new. Having new communications methods like the web may amplify it, but those who can focus will still excel above the rest.

  3. How do you reconcile the theory that kids have short attention spans with the fact that kids can spend hours at a time immersed in video games, working towards defined goals and mastery?

    Video games may not be seen to be as ‘productive’ or ‘useful’ as math problems, but it disproves the point that the capacity for attention is diminished amongst today’s youth.

    It seems to me that kids are learning valuable skills related to technology, which should be taken into account.

    Also, it seems to me that the schools are failing to convey subjects in ways that will capture the attention of the young students.

  4. Hi Bob,

    Great comment and thanks for your thoughts. You’re right that kids today can spend hours immersed in a video game working towards mastering in. World of Warcraft, infact, relies on players ammasing numerous hours to be successful at the game.

    I tend to agree with @Nigepresto that there are many kids, aged 19-25 or somewhere around there, that have a real grasp on a great many topics…much more than I myself may ever have. The web and being able to leverage new technologies towards mastering a subject has allowed many young people the ability to become experts well before they may have in an unconnected world. But I think it is important to still realise, as @rosshill mentioned, that those that csn stay focused will still be the successful ones.

    Encouraging, and even lauding kids for their ability to study whilst listening to music, myspace, msn etc etc is not the right celebration – using those tools in a way that leverages the ability they may have had previously is. I agree that our education system is far too slow in coming around to this point. My brother used MSN to ask friends their answer to different questions on an assignment…something teachers are struggling with. According to EDNA (www.edna.edu.au) 80% of teachers use wikipedia for background research on topics they teach yet still tell their kids not to reference it.

    I think one of the flaws of the book and the Outliers theory is that those case studies covered (among them, Bill Gates and The Beatles) are at the extreme end (hence the Outliers title, I spose!). All the case studies went to be world-or-industry defining people. Perhaps it takes 10k hours to master something to the point of global impact, but the average punter can see marked improvement and opportunities present themselves after a few thousand hours?

    Who knows, but the idea that it takes focus and hard work to achieve things is something I don’t think we’ll be moving away from anytime soon.

  5. Its amazing how nuggets of wisdom buried away unconsciously that get triggered by something. This 10,000 hours idea is one of them. too long ago when I was at university age the advice I was getting indicated that the choices we make today and the discipline we have will determine where we are in our lives in 5 years time. This was in particular related to ‘personal’ mastery and the discplines of reflective practise, sprirtuality etc. So, 10,000 hours over 5 years equates to 5 1/2 hours a day … a big ask!

    I add this comment not to suggest that anything less than 10,000 is in-effective but simply to add to the illustration that although improvements and successes can come quicker than a 5 year time frame, the quality of life and ‘success’ we enjoy in 5 years time will be directly attributable to what we are doing right here and right now.

    The observations on the youth of today is fascinating. This thought is not new; The key I think is teaching people how to harness technology as an enabler aswell as teaching them how to manage the ‘noise’ to ensure its not a distraction. Certainly with young children myself I am very aware of the different effect ‘mindless’ engagement with TV is (even if the content of the program is educational) versus the active learning (albeit often unconsciously for the children) when they are hands on with books, puzzles, toys or whatever.

    Now … if only I had the time to read the book …. 🙂

  6. Great review.

    The question then seems to be “Is mastery neccessary?”

    If the only thing that is mastered is the ability to recognise opportunity and to take advantage – then it is possible that success may follow.

    We live in different times – once the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” was a bad thing – maybe now not so.

    With increased career changes, industries and occupations changing at a rapid rate – mastery can be a wasted resource and at worst a decision that could cost you your career. How many master shoemakers do you know, how about typewriter technicians.

    When I was in primary school, I never said that I wanted to be a digital project manager when I grew up – the personal computer wasn’t invented yet.

    To invest 10k hours and be a success doesn’t only rely upon hard work – but also luck that it is still going to be something that the world needs and in most cases will pay for.

    Maybe I need to read the book. However at first glance mastery is risky – big investment, big rewards are possible but even if you succeed you may find your mastery worthless.

  7. Thanks for the comments guys. @Derek Winter I think the idea is you should MAKE the time to read the book :).

    I completely agree that the things that we find ourselves doing today directly affect the things you may be doing in 5 years time. I was in a conversation where we discussed this just this morning. Everyone is on a journey, but choosing to accrue 10,000 hours is a life-changing choice and something that people don’t really ever ‘make’ but that they do. Bill Gate, case in point, never said “I want to start Microsoft” but “loved playing on the computer.”

    I think this is where @keith don’s comments come in as being key. As a qualified “jack of all trade, master of none” with a degree in Entrepreneurship I think I can safely say I’m a fan of being a generalist. This is the other key facet of the book. You’re right, there are 1000’s of people who put in 10,000 hours into a great many things. Being a parent etc etc but not everyone wins ‘Father of the year.’

    The other key factor in Gladwells book was the advantages these people experienced which allowed them to get a better. Gates has access to a computer when he was a student, which allowed him to accrue 10,000 hours in computer skills. But he accrued these because he loved it first. It then just so happened that different opportunities came up which allowed him to use his skills to eventually build microsoft.

    It’s complex, and the book explains it much better than I (obviously!) but the theory goes your 10,000 hours only position you to take advantage of opportunities that come along ONLY to those ready for them. Eg – @keith don I’m betting you wouldn’t have got the Digital Project Manager role without going through all the other projects you have, whilst also writing and participating in web communities for many years. 😉

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