For years, I have preached the importance of hard work, determination, persistence and practice -- make that perfect practice -- as key ingredients of success. A nifty new book seems to support my theory.
Malcolm Gladwell has written a fascinating study, "Outliers: The Story of Success" (Little, Brown & Co., 2008), which should make a lot of people feel much better about not achieving instant success. In fact, he says it takes about 10 years, or 10,000 hours, of practice to attain true expertise.
"The people at the very top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else," Gladwell writes. "They work much, much harder." Achievement, he says, is talent plus preparation. Preparation seems to play a bigger role.
For example, he describes The Beatles' rise to fame: They had been together seven years before their famous arrival in America. They spent a lot of time playing in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany, sometimes for as long as eight hours a night. John Lennon said of those years: "We got better and got more confidence. We couldn't help it with all the experience playing all night long." Overnight sensation? Not exactly. Estimates are that that the band performed live 1,200 times before their big success in 1964. By comparison, most bands don't perform 1,200 times in their careers.
Neurologist Daniel Levitin has studied the formula for success extensively, and shares this finding: "The emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, the number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery." Two computer giants, Bill Joy, who co-founded Sun Microsystems, and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, also were proof of the 10,000-hour theory. Their years of hard work paid off, don't you think?
As Gladwell puts it, "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good."
My purely unscientific observations support all that he says. Our sales reps at MackayMitchell Envelope Co. seem to hit their prime after several years of hard work. And I believe it's more than getting comfortable in the job, because I've also seen sales reps that seemed like naturals at selling who couldn't peddle water in the desert. Why? They thought they could get by on their good looks, their winning personalities or their pedigrees. The notion of investing 10,000 hours didn't apply to them -- or so they thought. I wouldn't know because they aren't working for us anymore.
Consider these thoughts from successful folks in all walks of life:
-- "A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals."
-- Larry Bird, basketball star turned coach/team president.
-- "No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius." -- Anna Pavlova, ballerina.
-- "I know the price of success: dedication, hard work and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen." -- Frank Lloyd Wright, architect.
-- "The way to learn to do things is to do things. The way to learn a trade is to work at it. Success teaches how to succeed. Begin with the determination to succeed, and the work is half done already." -- Mark Twain, writer and humorist.
-- "Things may come to those who wait. But only the things left by those who hustle." -- President Abraham Lincoln.
Do you detect a theme here?
The abilities these people possessed were far-ranging, yet the formula for success was the same: hard work and lots of it. I don't know anyone who has succeeded any other way. Some people just make it look easy. Of course, you probably didn't see the first 9,999 hours of hard work. And you don't just have to work hard; you have to work smart, too.
Mackay's Moral: Some people dream about success, and others wake up and do something about it.