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!