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10,000 Hours, etc.

I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (author of The Tipping Point). It’s an interesting book as it tries to pin down the reasons why successful people are successful. Gladwell presents some very strong points which are backed up by historical and verifiable data. He touches on many reasons on what makes a superstar, but the two that most caught my eye are his 10,000 hour-rule and the “accidental” relation to the time of birth.

In short, the 10,000 hour rule specifies that to attain mastery over any field, a minimum of 10,000 hours is required. This 10,000 hour rule is presented as a hard-stop towards attaining mastery. Gladwell spans history in digging up various personalities to prove his point. From the Beatles, to Bill Joy (co-founder of SUN and the guy who literally wrote UNIX and the Internet), to Bill Gates to Mozart (even I was surprised by this one), Gladwell shows that all, without fail, have put in at least 10,000 hours before they became masters in their respective fields. Even if you put in 10-hours a day, 7 days a week, this will take you ~3 years. And this is without adjusting for other distractions of life like personal commitments, work, health, etc. A more realistic figure would be ~9 years after all practical adjustments.

The other astounding differentiator in superstars is their time of birth. Let’s look at the current century, though the same holds true for other periods in time. The current centruy has been dominated mostly by science and technology, so Silicon Valley is a great case-study.

The most important date in the history of the personal computer revolution was January 1975“. If somebody were to take advantage of this revolution they would need to be at the optimal age in 1975. What is the optimal age? If you were too old, you were probably in IBM and mainframes ruled. If you were a few years out of college, you had a wife, a kid was on the way, and you were not going to give up the security of a job to ride some new revolutionary wave. Ideally, you should have been between 20-23 in 1975, which places your birth year at ~1955. Take a look at this list:

  • Bill Gates, October 28, 1955
  • Paul Allen, January 21, 1953 (Microsoft co-founder)
  • Steve Ballmer, March 24, 1956 (current Microsoft CEO)
  • Steve Jobs, February 24th, 1955 (Apple founder)
  • Eric Schmidt, April 27th, 1955 (current Google CEO)
  • Bill Joy, November 8th, 1954
  • Scott McNealy, November 13th, 1954 (SUN Microsystems co-founder)
  • Vinod Khosla, January 28th, 1955 (SUN Microsystems co-founder)
  • Andy Bechtolsheim, September 30th, 1955 (SUN Microsystems co-founder & the guy who gave Larry Page and Sergey Brin their first investment which has today spawned into Google)

I mean, com’n this list is just way too significant to ignore. These guys are household names today and they have revolutionized the way we live, think, work, etc. And the “coincidence” of their birth year is, IMO (and Gladwell’s), more than mere coincidence. Not surprisingly, the same pattern repeats if you look at the 1860s and 1870s when America had its greatest transformation with railroads and Wall Street emerging. If you were born in the late 1840s, you missed the boat. If you were born in the 1820s, you were too old. There was a narrow 9-year window (1831-1840) where your chances increased manifold if you were born in this window to take full-advantage of the New World and the opportunities it presented.

I am not discounting other factors like intelligence, desire, will, network, legacy, etc., but it seems like opportunity is a huge factor here which is mostly dependent on external conditions, like world situation, market conditions, breakthroughs, etc., which are outside one’s control. I am considering these other factors as a given if you wish to be successful. I always thought opprtunity had a huge element of luck (which was an intangible), but now for the first time luck has been defined as the year of your birth!

This brings me back to the the MBA. Considering that the average age of an MBA student is ~28 years old, this would put his birth year at ~1980. The current financial recession is something we’ve never seen before and we all have heard how the face of finance is going to change. I am going to link this back to Gladwell’s observations of opportunity and being in the right place at the right time. IMO, this is probably the  best time to do an MBA and target getting out of B-school by either 2011 or 2012 (at the latest). Coming out then is going to put you on the cusp of a new wave which would in all probability be a paradigm shift from the past.

IB as we know it is dead. Even PE/ VC have been affected and the way hedge funds are going to operate is going to change. It’s obvious that the way industry does business has already changed. Consulting is the slave of industry and has to adjust according to their business needs. All in all, there seems to be a major shake-up in the offing in the business world and a new order is about to set in.

We have seen the difficulties of those who have just graduated. They are finding it hard to land plum jobs and in 1-3 years they will not be ready to take the risk of riding a new wave (what with the loans, etc.), much like those a few years out of college in 1975. Those who are going to join B-school in 2012 or later will be too late to the party as the new paradigm would be well-established by then. Not that they won’t get good jobs and earn lots of money, but they definitely won’t be outliers.

So, this leaves us, who are embarking on school this year or the next, in a very interesting position in history. We’re “lucky” enough to be in that special narrow window which produces outliers. We have put in enough hardwork the last 5-7 years. How we chart our future from here-on is now down to the intangibles like will, desire, intelligence, etc., but at least these are in our control.

Whether we become “Outliers” is completely upto us, but there’s a damn good chance of it happening. I wish each of you embarking on school in the near future the best of luck and here’s to each of you becoming an outlier in whatever you do.


4 Responses

  1. I agree with you that we are at the cusp of sweeping changes in the businees world. But do keep in mind that the effects could be positive as well as negative. There are questions being raised about b-school education in the midst of a financial crisis and ethics of leaders emerging from b-schools (in response, H students recently started a pledge to “do no harm” – do you actually need a pledge for this!!??). The model of a b-school being a feeder to certain professions (i.e IB, PE, VC etc.) might not hold forever.

    Yes people will strike it big too, but I think it will be those who dare to be different. We will just have to wait and find out!

  2. I agree that the effects could be anything; pretty much the same as in 1975 and 1860s. How we leverage on these changes is something unique to those embarking on school now, which threw up the whole outliers discussion. I did read about H students and the “hypocritic” oath, and I find it ludicrous! It’s almost like they’re admitting they were unethical in the first place.

    You have a point that the role of a feeder system that B-schools play today is changing in light of the recession. IMO, entrepreneurship is going to get bigger than ever, and that ties in with the theory that outliers need to be different to become outliers.

    Interesting times ahead. Sit back and enjoy the ride!

  3. Well maybe these people are the ones that started the “revolutionary wave” and not the opposite way around. The fact that some people were born lead to the development of significant movements that changed the world. It is their being born in the 1950s that lead to the creation of personal computers in the mid 1970s and other creations that followed. Had they not been born, the revolution would have happenned anyway. It is the genius of those “superstars” as you call them that lead to those revoluationary waves to happen when they happenned.

    • Bill Gates or Bill Joy (or any of the others who were listed) did not personally lead the personal computer revolution in 1975 (they were just out of their teens!). The PC revolution occurred primarily because of a guy called Ed Roberts. He engineered the first PC, called the Altair. The listed people being born had nothing to do with the PC’s creation (Ed Roberts was no Nostradamus ;p), which was an evolution of mainframes. No doubt the ~1955ers were geniuses in their own right, but genius alone never guaranteed success.

      My point is that opportunity plays a HUGE role here and my assessment till now was opportunity had a huge component called luck, which was undefined (yes, I know all those arguments about charting your own destinies, etc., so spare me that, coz’ I think it’s an idealistic argument). BTW, there’s a contradiction in your comment between your 3rd and 4th statements. And “genius” does not equal IQ alone. Genius has many other components to it like will, desire, hard-work, etc. which are intangibles. All these intangibles coupled with opportunity created superstars.

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