Sunday, February 7, 2010

10,000 hours to be truly good

I bought this book called Outliers, The Story of Success, for Tony as a Christmas present. It was a cheeky thing to do but I learnt this trick from him who excels at buying me things he wanted.

Outliers is written by Malcom Gladwell, the guy with the buffy hair who also wrote Tipping Point. Gladwell’s theory is that geniuses do not become what they are until they have put in the hard yards. Mozart may have wrote his first symphony at 10 but it wasn’t a masterpiece.

He also postulates that cultural environment shapes a lot of what we are or become. My favourite story in the book is about Jewish lawyers, how their forefathers started off in clusters, in parts of the US, often as tailors. But by the second or third generation, their kids quickly become lawyers or doctors. There is a certain level of charm in the story for me, as the grand daughter of a Chinese immigrant to Malaysia. My grandfather owned a laundry shop, so did countless clansmen from his village. My dad was an accounts clerk, I became the first in my family to have a University degree, followed by 4 of my first cousins, and my brother is an accountant. We moved on from the laundry shop because success was imprinted into our minds from the time we were born by our parents who did not want to revert to poverty in China.

It may seem like a cliché to see the Jews dominating the tailoring trade in parts of New York. But this reality appears in most cultures. The Jews who went to America who subsequently became tailors already came with a lot of knowledge about their trade from their country of origin. They used it. My grandfather and his clansmen got together capital and provided the expertise they learnt or acquired, to become the Cantonese “laundromats” of their era. Many Teochews (a dialect group), from Southern China, were provision shop owners, based on what the clansmen shared with each other – their knowledge of acquiring rice, flour, sugar, cooking oil and a 1,000little things you can buy in their shop. And if you want to learn the diamond trade, a good place to start is amongst the close-knit Palanpuris in India, who control the diamond cutting and polishing trade in the world.

I like Gladwell’s story because this is lesson I have been trying to impart to Princess. Hard work is everything; and if you do something long enough, you will get good at what you do. You can’t help where you are born, or to which family you have been born into. These are “given”. But you can be a master of your trade by doing the 20 hours per week for 10 years to be truly good at what you do, be in piano, ballet, tennis, or golf, a writer, a hairdresser or an accountant. The other key is to start early, or to have a head-start. The girls at Princess' tennis club have mostly been playing since 4.5 to 5 yrs old...that's how young we started. There is a girl in Princess' class who does 3 hours of tennis a day...she is no doubt, an elite sportswoman already, at 11. So, it is all about the hours.

Gladwell told CNN in an interview we are often impatient to see success. Success, like good cheese or wine, comes with sufficient time. What we need to do, he says, is to create opportunities or institutions allowing people to acquire the mastery they need to be successful.

Where I depart, I think, from the author, is the difference between "having it" and not having it -- talent or in-born knack, the code in your DNA which gives you just that edge in differentiating yourself between good and outstanding.

Now, I realise why I can’t make good bread -- I need to truly do 10,000 hours of baking before achieving any form of mastery in getting the perfect dough!