Outliers: In 10 years, you too, could be hailed a “Genius”

Ibm704-mainframe

Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers is an entertaining account of how cultural or social contexts shape your success (or failure) whether you be a Mozart, Bill Gates or an unfulfilled genius such as Christopher Langan who has been billed the world’s smartest man (but not the necessarily the most successful.)

At first glance there is a slightly deterministic vibe about his theory, which suggests the individual’s environment plays a primary role in shaping his or her success.

Genius = 10,000 hours
However, he argues, this is not enough: Once the the correct environment has been established via family, social conditions, political climate (or other outside machinations) the individual must then engage in 10,000 hours of practice or roughly 4-8 hours per day for up to 10 years to reach expert level.

As with most Gladwell books, you will find yourself gravitating more towards certain chapters which resonate with you personally.

Since I have experienced the ups and downs (more like pain!) of learning a programming language I found his ideas on Bill Joy extremely interesting.

Bill Joy, as Gladwell puts it, is sometimes referred to as the “Edison of the Internet” or a “Software God” and is regarded as one of the most influential people in the modern history of computing. He co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982 and has produced popular variants of the Unix Operating System.

In nutshell, after reviewing his achievements, one would usually throw one’s hands up in the air and exclaim: Of course, he is a “genius” — he was born with it.

But according to Gladwell, his genius is partly the result of a key decision he made when he attended a University where a switch had been made from the old punch card system hated by programmers to a new, faster time-sharing system. Well, there were one or two other reasons too, but I will get to them!

The big problem in the early 1960s was limited access to a tiny portion of mainframes (the sized of huge rooms!) in computer centers scattered throughout the United States.

Further, complex programs fed off a stack of cardboard punch cards containing lines of code imprinted from a keypunch machine.

It took ages for the operator to feed your cards into the mainframe which meant visits were by appointment only, leading to long lines and wait times. One mistake (or bug) in the code was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack and it could take hours or days before the programmer was ready to schedule another appointment with the mainframe operator.

“Programming with cards,” one computer scientist from that era remembers , “did not teach you programming. It taught you patience and proofreading.”

If you wanted to become a programming ‘expert’ or a ‘legend’ in your field you needed far more access to get you that 10,000 hours of practice. And, punch cards were not the way to do it!

How Mainframes opened up
But, in the late 1960s the heavens opened and more powerful mainframe systems allowed multiple programs to be run on the same computer via connected terminals. This was the birth of the mainframe time-sharing model.

In 1970, Bill Joy selected the University of Michigan and their Computer Science Program, which fortunately for Joy, was one of the first institutions to switch over to the new time-sharing system.

“Do you know the difference between computing chards and time-sharing?” joy says. “It’s the difference between playing chess by email and speed chess.”

But the time-sharing program did have one restriction: All students were given accounts with a fixed amount of money, which meant time would run out, usually after an hour.

Bill and his fellow programmers discovered a bug in the program which would allow them to avoid having their accounts charged. This meant you could sit at your terminal and program all day long.

He was soon programming eight to ten hours a day and by the time he got to Berkley University he was doing it both day and night.

Thus, lay the recipe for creating one of the world’s greatest and most influential programmers.



Ericcson and “Deliberate Practice”
Gladwell’s book is largely based on pioneering research first carried out in the area of cognitive psychology by such noted polymaths as Herbert Alexander Simon and one of his students, Anders Ericcson, a leader in research on “Expertise” at Florida State University.

For Ericcson, “deliberate practice” is the key to understanding genius. Perhaps its best to let him describe this idea in his own words:

“… the critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts, around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists. More generally, the accumulated amount of deliberate practice is closely related to the attained level of performance of many types of experts, such as musicians”
Ericcson, Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice
An updated excerpt from Ericsson (2000)

The good new and bad news
After putting down Outliers you are confronted with both good and bad news. The bad news of course, is that there is no substitute for hard work.

Further, you need a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time.

The good news? Genius is within everyone’s reach – it just takes 10 years!


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How Quirky.com Killed My Dreams of Becoming an Inventor | Jason Stevens - 04. Jul, 2010

    […] Its amazing that 22-year olds are coming up with sites such as Quirky, SwipeBids and Facebook. Part of the reason may be due to the 10,000 hour rule mentioned in my review of Outliers By Malcolm Gladwell. […]

Leave a Reply