I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers yet, mostly because I know what his point is. This isn’t like deciding not to see a movie because you already know the ending. It’s more than that. Deeper. Sort of on par with not going to the doctor because you know you’re sick.
Outliers deals with success. More to the point, why some people find it and others never do. Gladwell studies the lives of the super elite—Bill Gates, Tom Brady, and the Beatles, for instance—and also people like Chris Langan, people you’ve probably never heard of and yet were or are just as talented.
What Gladwell found was both predictable and decidedly not. The predictable part is something I can completely accept without hesitation. The part that’s not? Well, let’s just say that if he’s true, then a lot of what I’ve always held to be true about success in anything just…isn’t.
Outliers states that the mastery of any skill, whether it’s computer programming or throwing a football or writing, requires ten thousand hours of practice. Bill Gates, for instance, spent the better part of his high school years sneaking into nearby Washington University to program and then snuck back through his bedroom window before his mother could wake him for school. The Beatles found their first playing job at a strip club in Germany, where the owner forced them to play eight hours a day.
In other words, they put in their time. They worked. And that work paid off. People will come and go, but both Bill Gates and the Beatles will be around forever.
But wait. There’s more.
Those ten thousand hours of practice—in my case writing and rewriting and writing again—might make mastery possible, but it won’t guarantee success. Accomplishment requires more than the putting in of one’s time.
Gladwell finds another common theme besides hard work in every person he studies. Bill Gates wouldn’t have become the billionaire computer genius he is today if he hadn’t have been fortunate enough to grow up a stone’s throw away from what was at the time the preeminent computer complex in the United States. The Beatles would have never honed their skills to the point where they were not four men on a stage but seemingly one if they hadn’t have stumbled into that strip club in Germany.
In case after case, time after time, the people who stand upon the apex of human achievement in every conceivable area all have this in common:
They got lucky.
And I hate it.
I hate it because chance should have nothing to do with success. I hate it because I was raised to believe that this is the one country on God’s good Earth where you could start with nothing, work your tail off, believe in your dreams, and ultimately have them. That in the end whether you stand or crawl in this life was largely up to you. It was sweat and tears and picking yourself up just one more time than you fall down. Luck had nothing to do with it. We made our own luck.
We made our own breaks.
But I’ve been spending some time lately looking back on my own life from the first time I put pen to paper and dreamed until now. And I can see clearly the fact that I’ve caught my own share of breaks. Breaks that, if never received, would have resulted in a manuscript that still sat on my desk rather than a publisher’s.
Which made me wonder why I was so lucky when there were just as many manuscripts sitting on other people’s desks that were just as good, better, than mine.
What makes me so lucky?
I thought this all might sound better if I replaced “luck” with “blessing,” but it didn’t. All that left me with was that God chose to bless me with my dreams rather than someone else who’d worked just as hard and written just as well.
So here I sit, pecking away at my laptop in the middle of the night and wondering. Is this really an even playing field, or are some destined for their breaks—for that blessing—and some not? And if so, what does that say about life with such unfairness built into it and a God who will allow the spark of a dream to fan to flame only to burn itself out?
I don’t know. Maybe you do.
What do you think? If you’ve found success, was it because of a break? And if you haven’t yet, do you think you’ll need a break to get there?