The other day, I asked Niels, my assistant, if he’d ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In particular, I mentioned the chapter in the book that spoke of the Italian village of Roseto Valfortore, and the connection between, well, deeper connections with one’s community and longevity.
I once heard that nearly everyone thinks they’ll live to the age of 100, and something like 2% do. It’s somewhat akin to the percentage of Coloradans who camp. I’d bet there are many more garages in Colorado Springs with brand new, unused tents than well-used ones.
Ah, but whether or not our Earthly tent does hold together well into the “golden years”, shouldn’t we be more focused on how we’re using it than how long we have left?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: each time a person creates anything, they’re adding to the enormous, amorphous blob of culture; enlarging, to one degree or another, the whole of humanity’s pursuits, and not just in the realm of the arts. Every interaction with the world, every correspondence with one’s environment via the senses, adds something to culture. Even destroying the Twin Towers was a kind of addition, despite the onerous weight of what that abhorrent act erased. It added, for one thing, a kind of pervasive weight, like an invisible blanket, onto a new generation of Americans. A new classification of potential horror now exists within our minds which was incomprehensible before.
The notion is a close cousin to the butterfly effect, which says that, for example, next summer and fall’s hurricanes are theoretically effected in a nonlinear way by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, perhaps thousands of miles away and weeks prior.
If it is a valid thought that we all add something, large or small, to culture, then to be alive means to be creative, and hence to use the term “creative person” is, in some ways, redundant. Maybe that’s why babies typically arrive ‘on stage’ wailing – maybe it’s more than the shock of their comparatively new, cold, and harshly lighted reality. Maybe they already realize, lamentably, that they can’t escape being another poor player who, with each breath, is strutting and fretting and, whether they like it or not, changing and affecting culture – that the painful pressure that delivered them into their new reality, in some immeasurable way, never lets up. (Ed. note: For the record, and I would add significantly, Andy disagrees with the conclusion of Macbeth’s soliloquy.) For them and for us all, even if we live on a desert island with no one to witness it but a ball named Wilson, that continuous pressure against culture’s existing membrane never lets up. Awake or asleep, like the expanding universe itself, with every breath we make and every move we make, we contribute to the swelling of culture.
I have to admit, however, that some do so much, much more than others. Steve Jobs, for instance, though he died at the young age of 56, affected culture much more than, oh, say, actor Lee Majors, who is best known for his 1970’s tv role as Steve Austin, a.k.a. the Six Million Dollar Man.
Like Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and many other “one hit wonders” we all could name, Majors’ 15 minutes of fame burned hot enough that the chemical stench from his expensive bionic parts seems to have permanently tainted him ever since. Not that I have my finger on the pulse of popular culture or anything. (Lee, if you’re reading this, please don’t use your superhuman strength to hurt me.) Oops, I did it again, unhelpfully associating you with the character you played in days of yore.
Malcolm Gladwell calls those who move culture’s boundary lines with alacrity “outliers”, and his book by the same title defines the various conditions that, in turn, develop the kinds of people the rest of us tend to call “successful” – those whose lives markedly change culture.
Some of the conditions are inborn, and others are societal – that is, they’re helped along (or not) by the particular modus operandi of the subset of culture one develops in. Some depend on the good fortune of being born at the right time and the right place, when one can take advantage of, for instance, technologies that, even a few years earlier, wouldn’t have existed. Some, actually require the good fortune of being born at a certain time of year (read the chapter on Canadian hockey players). Yet it’s the chapter entitled The 10,000 Hour Rule that captivates the attention of most people I know, including myself.
(Ed. note: It’s been a few years since either Andy or I have read Outliers, and we’re both operating on memory rather than going to the effort of cracking the book open, so don’t expect what you read to be an accurate representation of the 10,000 Hour Rule thesis.)
In short, Gladwell submits that one requirement to become a statistical outlier in any field is that of having put 10,000 hours of dedicated effort into your particular enterprise. After having studied countless outliers, that number seems to be the exceptional golden ticket that just gets you in the door. For instance, it’s the amount of time the Beatles played live in Liverpool prior to crossing the pond and exploding onto the scene via the Ed Sullivan show. Most bands don’t get that amount of live playing in their entire lifespan. It’s the amount of time nearly reached by Bill Gates when he attended a private school in Seattle and had nearly unfettered access to a then-world class fast computer, allowing him to both learn processing at a much faster clip than the typical laborious process of using punch-cards and amass thousands of hours to develop his exceptional abilities. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard and began Microsoft, ding ding ding – his access pass read “10,000 hours – check”. Gladwell provides ample additional examples, but one thing becomes crystal clear by the time you’ve reached the end of the chapter:
Dude, you gotta put in the time.
Helpfully or perhaps discouragingly, I’ve put my own spin on the rule. By and large, you’ll need 600,000 minutes of prep before your abilities begin to coalesce.
600,000 minutes of purposeful, directed study.
If that amount of time looks as daunting to you as Mount Everest, you’re getting the picture.
You can’t climb the world’s tallest mountain by exercising thirty minutes a week, perhaps not even thirty minutes a day, and pursuing your passion for thirty minutes a day won’t allow you to rise like cream within your profession, either. Well, you may rise, but by the time you get there you’ll look, and be, the age of Yoda.
Want some more uplifting news? Reaching that elusive baseline guarantees you and me nothing, just like being the world’s fittest and most experienced climber doesn’t guarantee you’ll stand atop the world or winning Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket means you’ll be handed the keys to his chocolate factory when all’s said and done. There are plenty of other contributing factors that need to synthesize.
Here’s one Gladwell doesn’t mention:
Be nice, like Charlie Bucket.
It’d be nice if I’d leave you with some encouragement.
As with Luke Skywalker and his robotic hand and Steve Austin with his bionic body, you and I are never too old to be overhauled from the inside out. I want to talk more about this mindset, but it’s about time to wrap for the day.
During the opening credits of each episode of The Six Million Dollar Man you heard Richard Anderson say, “We can rebuild him…we have the technology.” It became the show’s catch phrase and perhaps, in a larger context, touched a nerve deep within the US society’s collective post-Vietnam War psyche.
Maybe it’ll become your mantra as well.
After all, you and I don’t need much technology to daub paint onto fabric or chisel into wood. We just need to infuse purer pigmentation into our mindset and carve out the time.