Let’s first define “winning.” For my purposes here, winning means meeting a long-sought-after goal. It means working at something that is important to you and accepting setbacks, even failures. It means tweaking and fixing and redoing if necessary and still moving on. It means not giving up. It means striving for excellence. It means sticking to something until the outcome is excellence.
In Outliers, a wonderful book about people who have risen to the top of their fields, Malcolm Gladwell writes about what makes amazingly successful people different. His conclusion? 10,000 hours of practice and more than a little luck. 10,000 hours! That translates to around 20 hours a week for 10 years! Whether he is talking about the Beatles, Bill Joy (one of the most influential people in computer programming), Bill Gates or elite hockey and soccer players, what they have in common is not talent (although they are all talented) but time. They put in the time. Lots of time.
As they got better at what they did, they didn’t slack off. They actually increased their practice time. Same thing for professional musicians. Once a student becomes good enough to gain entry into a top music school, what decides who will make it to the top of the top is how hard they work. Not only do they work harder. They work much harder than the rest of their class.
What an interesting idea! But Gladwell isn’t a researcher. He’s a reporter. He came up with the 10,000 hour rule because he dug in and looked for commonalities among people who were exceptional in their fields.
Then along came Angela Duckworth and her research team at the University of Pennsylvania. They decided to study the individual differences that predict success. Like Gladwell, they weren’t looking only at talent. Successful people are all talented. But so are lots of unsuccessful people. Duckworth and her team were searching for something beyond talent. They wanted to know why some people accomplish more than others of equal intelligence or talent.
Grit is What’s Important, Not Hours
Their answer? Grit. Grit is the name Duckworth’s team gave to perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working long and hard toward a personal goal regardless of disappointments, setbacks, plateaus, and even failures along the way. As she says in one of her papers, people with grit approach a problem or goal as a marathon, not a sprint. Short bursts of intensity don’t do it. Successful people are committed for the long haul.
What distinguishes those who are successful is stamina. Sound familiar? Duckworth may not have measured the number of hours that lead to success, but I’m making a guess that anyone who sticks with practicing the piano, working on advanced math or developing a life-saving medical invention for 10,000 hours would meet her criterion for grittiness.
They’re the kind of people who set very long-term goals for themselves and don’t let anything get them off their path. Their resumes reflect it. These are not the folks that explored four careers or made lots of false starts. They know that quitting and repeatedly starting over is not a recipe for success. They often have been doing what they’ve been doing since they were quite young. It turns out working long and hard really does matter.
The Importance of Luck Too
Gladwell adds another variable: Luck. Think about it. What makes it possible for a kid to practice for 10,000 hours before she is into her 20s? What makes it more likely than not that a kid who loves what a computer can do or who wants to know more about how an inventor invents will find a mentor or equipment or support for a project?
This is where luck comes in. Probably such kids didn’t have to work for money after school every day to help support their original family or early parenthood. Probably there was a teacher or parent (or both) who saw their potential and encouraged them. Someone probably helped them apply to good schools, get scholarships or find other kinds of backing. Most likely, they lucked out in finding a lab or a studio or facility where they could try out their ideas.
Bill Joy just happened to go to college at the University of Michigan, one of the first places in the world where a student could try out programming as much as he wanted. The Beatles just happened to start their career in the nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany (yes, it’s true) where they performed live an estimated 1,200 times! And Bill Gates? When he was only in eighth grade, he fell into computer programming because the Mothers Club at his private high school bought a computer terminal.
If that weren’t enough luck, as a teen Gates discovered that the computers at the University of Washington (which was walking distance from his home) wasn’t scheduled between 3 and 6:00 a.m. He’d sneak out of the house and spend hours there. There is more to the story, but you get the idea. Not only was he putting in the time but he was lucky enough to have a place to do it.
Making Yourself a Winner
What can we learn from all this? The not-so-easy lesson is that hard work often does pay off — if you define “hard” as going for something very long-term. It’s not enough to work hard for short amounts of time or to reach intermediate goals. It means setting our sights on something we can be passionate about for a very long time, regardless of whether there are immediate rewards.
College admission departments who look for “well rounded” students who not only get good grades but also are star athletes, president of their class, in the jazz band and who participate in major charitable projects are barking up the wrong tree. Yes, those kids are really interesting. Many will graduate and get good jobs. But the kids who will make a major contribution are those who have already been focused n one thing for some time. Grit and determination matter.
And then there’s the luck part. What Gladwell and Duckworth don’t talk about is the possibility for making our own “luck.” What we call “luck” often involves looking around. The reality is that the computers that Bill Joy and Bill Gates used as teens were available whether they used them or not. They heard about them and sought them out.
Those clubs the Beatles played in were there for any band that wanted to have an audience. Teachers are willing and, in fact, delighted to spend extra time with an engaged and enthusiastic student. The Internet now provides information for anyone who wants to look. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, posts all of its courses online free for anyone who wants to take them. Scholarships and startup money may be harder to find than information, but there’s still quite a bit out there.
If you want to be wildly successful at your career, what it takes is discipline, follow-through and focus on something you are really, really passionate about – plus being on the lookout for opportunity (which is another word for “luck”). Winners never do quit.