Nov 062009

hockyMalcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers: The Story of Success which I listened to in audio version,  made for an engrossing week of commuting. Every evening I would find myself gathering the family around to tell them the latest things I’d learned from the book. Most of them can’t wait to listen to it when I’m done with it.

Gladwell isn’t a “self-help” author. The power of his books comes through the sheer enjoyment of the fascinating new ideas he explains and the engrossing stories he uses to illustrate them. But he teaches these ideas so well that its not a very big leap to applying them in your own life.

In the case of Outliers, Gladwells topic is success. What is it that makes some people, like hockey stars, virtuoso musicians, wall-street tycoons or software giants like Bill Gates rise to the top? Is it pure genius and talent? Is it sheer determination? No, as it turns out. It’s a combination of circumstances that give some people the chance to excel. Some of these circumstances are as random as the day or year you happen to be born. Others are deeply rooted in culture and history.

I don’t want to give away all the discoveries that await you in this book. Let me just say that Gladwell answers such questions as: Why are nearly all Canadian hockey stars born in the first few months of the year? Why are Asians good at math? Why did the Hatfields and the McCoys feud? Why did Korean pilots once have terrible safety records? Why were all the great software giants of Silicon Valley born within months of each other? What REALLY made the Beatles great?

One principle that seems to underlie all the others I WILL share, because it’s particularly relevant. It’s the 10,000 hour rule. It turns out that to be REALLY great in some field – from playing an instrument to writing books – takes about 10,000 hours of practice. Many of the other principles of unusual success revolve around circumstances that give the outliers the unique opportunity to accumulate those 10,000 hours of practice.

The good news for us ordinary people (and for society at large) is that the 10,000 hour rule doesn’t seem to depend on talent. In one study of musicians in a music program, for example, researchers divided the players into groups, based on an expert assessment of their ability. Every single one of those in the “talented” group turned out to have accumulated 10,000 hours of practice. And, even more encouraging, not a SINGLE musician who had accumulated 10,000 hours of practice was in the “untalented” group.

The principle seems to be that even someone who SEEMS to have only mediocre talent can become great – simply by devoting enough time to practice. And our educational and social systems would do well to making sure that everyone, especially our children, receive the opportunity and encouragement to get those hours of practice in the areas that interest them. In terms of parenting, this book suggests a very hands-on, involved style of relationship with our children, to guide them into finding and perfecting their talents and interests.

This book is another fine addition to Gladwell’s series. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Oct 312009

3088163662_f0df4f9508I’m the kind of person who likes some spontaneity in my life. I don’t like schedules. I don’t like a to-do list. I want to be free to do whatever strikes me.  So, for many years, I resisted using a planner or organizer.

Finally, I was at a seminar where Hyrum Smith taught how to use a day-planner. I started using one, and I have to admit that it was one of the best changes I ever made. My ability to remember things and accomplish my goals and tasks dramatically improved. But I still thought of it as a compromise of my artistic,  spontaneous principles.

Finally, I read David Allen’s book – Getting Things Done – known in the organizational community as GTD. His explanations of the need for an organizational system finally penetrated my philosophical resistance.  Allen explained the psychology of organization.  Suppose you have an upcoming appointment or a critical task – and you have NOT written it down in a trustworthy system.  Even if you are not consciously worried about it, there will be some part of your  mind that KNOWS you have that appointment, and is always worried about whether you will remember it.  There will be a subtle background of stress and worry, even if you aren’t completely aware of it. And that stress and worry will make it harder for you to relax or to devote all your mind to creating and producing anything.

On the other hand, if you have a reliable system for capturing those appointments and tasks, and if you have captured them, and if your mind KNOWS that – at the right time, your system will remind you – then you can relax. Your mind will be free to relax, enjoy life and create wonderful things – the moment it knows it can trust your external system to bring things to your attention. The trick is to get everything OUT of your mind and INTO your external system.

Look at it this way. If I have a planner, and I book an appointment for two weeks from now, and I know that I will check that planner every day – then I can completely forget about that appointment until two weeks from now. On the other hand, if I don’t have a planner or other system, then some part of my mind will occupy itself – for two whole weeks, with trying to remember the appointment.

You don’t use organizational systems and planners so that you can obsess about things. You use them so that you can put things out of your mind until absolutely necessary. Organization frees the space for spontaneity.

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