Monday, March 23, 2009

Outliers - How to Make Your Kids Successful

Now that I'm a parent, I can't read anything without thinking about how it applies to parenting -- even books which ostensibly have nothing to do with parenting. Sometimes I wish I could just sit down and enjoy a great piece of non-fiction on its merits rather than pondering how I might translate that into a learning opportunity. Thankfully, this one is less of a stretch than the last.

Malcolm Gladwell, has written another amazing book: Outliers: The Story of Success. As with his previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, he totally changes the way we think about the world using vignettes so illustrative and compelling that you never realize that you are reading a scholarly work.

Gladwell studies uber-successful people, finds the commonalities, and then writes a recipe for success that goes something like this:

1) have some natural talent
2) work hard and be prepared
3) be very lucky

Some examples are professional hockey players, Bill Gates, and the most successful lawyers in New York City.

In the "work hard and be prepared" category, Gladwell purports that 10,000 hours is the magic number. You need to acquire 10,000 hours of experience in your field prior to your "big lucky break". Having that 10,000 hours under you belt makes you an expert. If you have it and other don't - at just the time in history when it's required - then you will be catapulted to success. Witness Bill Gates, who had access to a computer in 8th grade at a time when such access wasn't available on most college campuses. Thus, he was able to acquire his 10,000 hours early on in life, and was one of the few people poised to jump on the computer programming opportunities of the early 80's. Steve Jobs was another.

So, what does this all mean for parenting? Gladwell gives only a few hints, so here's my take. 10,000 hours is a lot! It's the kind of time commitment that you can't force on someone who doesn't want to do it (i.e. your kids). It's too many hours to "work" at something. You have to really love what you are doing so much that it becomes "play". Then, you will be compelled to spend more time at it. It's also the kind of time commitment many people will never achieve on any topic because they give up a lot earlier than that. Thus, tenacity is an important characteristic.

So, foster tenacity in your children. Encourage them to stick with things. Don't bail them out too early by giving them hints or the answers outright. Let them struggle with things, and praise them for sticking with it. This is something I could do a lot better.

When talking about successful people, point out all the long hours and hard work that went into getting there. I remember idolizing Mary Lou Retton in the '84 Olympics. My mom noticed my admiration and pointed out to me that Mary Lou Retton practiced gymnastics for several hours day in and day out for years. This idea really stuck with me -- that working hard was an important component of success.

Fostering a long attention span is also important. You can't get to 10,000 hours in 2 minute chunks. Encourage your kids to work on projects and problems that can't be solved in one sitting. You can help by dedicating some space in your home for long term projects.

Give them a love of learning. If they are frustrated over school work, make a game out of it. Have some laughs. Do something silly. Giggling over homework will surely increase the amount of time they are willing to put in.

Show them by example. Let them see you having fun at learning something. Take on something deliberately difficult to show them that you are not afraid to work hard. Talk to them about how hard work is the only way to really learn something completely.

Of course, don't forget the luck component. Not all of this is under your control. But, the skills you are building - tenacity, a strong work ethic, and a love of learning - will serve your kids well even if they aren't the next Bill Gates.

Related Articles:
Other Organized Mommy book reviews
A beautiful review of Outliers (Scribbit)


  1. I'm glad you liked it too--fabulous book.

  2. @Scribbit - thanks for visiting, Michelle! :-)


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