Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Source Code for Individual Success

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, attempts to reverse engineer the world’s most successful people.  He dispels the popular notion that successful people are simply more gifted than the rest of us.  Instead he attributes their success to a combination of luck, hard work and time.  Ultimately, he concludes that mastery of most things happens at around 10,000 hours of focused practice. Being the first to reach 10,000 hours of practice is an enormous advantage and often comes down to luck.

For example, most professional hockey players were born between January and March.  This gives them a significant advantage since the most talented hockey players are selected for exclusive club teams when they are around 10 years old.  At this time, hockey players born early in the year are around 10% older than those born at the end of the year.  Therefore, they are bigger and more coordinated.  Once they’ve been selected for the special club teams they receive better coaching and face tougher competition.  Most importantly they practice significantly more hours every week – putting them on the fast track to mastery.

The same principle applies to software entrepreneurs born around 1955.  These were among the first people to have the opportunity to use time sharing terminals – which made it possible to quickly rack up 10,000 hours of programming time.  Because of several lucky coincidences, Bill Gates may have been the only 13-year old in the world with nearly unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968.  This gave him a substantial head start in getting to 10,000 hours.  Similar stories explain other wealthy software entrepreneurs born around 1955 including Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim.

Gladwell doesn’t claim that successful people lack special talent; he simply concludes that being gifted alone is not enough for success.  Mastery requires time, effort and lucky circumstances.

In my early years after college I embarked on a similar quest to understand how the most successful people achieved greatness.  I read the biographies of Rupert Murdock, Richard Branson, Ted Turner, etc.  Rather than being inspired, I was discouraged to discover that many entrepreneurs (especially Ted Turner) were miserable.  I decided that it wasn’t worth trying to become successful.

But after reading Outliers, I realize that the ingredients for success were piling up around me.  First I was probably born in the perfect year for an online marketer.  Many of the best online marketers I know were born around 1970.  Our lives were at the perfect stage in the mid 90’s to risk joining pioneering startups (we didn’t have mortgages or kids to feed) but we had enough experience to be given real responsibilities. Second, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to run marketing at in 1996, a startup with significant VC funding.  If the company had been started in the USA rather than Hungary, Uproar probably would have opted for a more experienced marketer.  And finally I became obsessed with online marketing – I burned the candle at both ends pushing the online marketing envelop.  I must have been among the first people to get 10,000 hours of experience with metrics driven online marketing.

This early head start helped us build Uproar into the world’s leading online game company using many pioneering online marketing programs.  And my initial success at Uproar has continued to open doors to interesting online marketing opportunities that further enhance my skills.

Unfortunately mastery of online marketing is elusive.  Online marketing is a moving target where the most effective tactics become irrelevant every couple of years.  But I do believe mastery of the startup go to market process is possible.  Look for more details on this in my next post.

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About Sean Ellis

CEO of Previous roles include first marketer at Dropbox, Lookout, Xobni, LogMeIn (IPO), and Uproar (IPO). Also interim marketing exec roles at Eventbrite, Socialcast, and Webs.

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