1. Gladwell opens this chapter with the story of the famous computer scientist Bill Joy. The University of Michigan opened one of the world’s most advanced computer centers in 1971. The Mainframe filled almost an entire room, and of the thousands of students who passed through this room, perhaps the most famous of all was Joy. He entered school contemplating a major in either biology or mathematics, but he stumbled across the computing center late in his freshman year and was hooked.
Chapter 2 opens the same way as Chapter 1—with a success story. Now that we are more well-versed in Gladwell’s argument about success, we should recognize that Bill Joy’s success was not based merely on talent: he attended one of the most advanced computing schools in the world to study biology or mathematics, and only happened to stumble upon computing by chance.
Joy eventually enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley, where he stunned his PhD examiners with his intellectual dexterity and brilliance. He went on to rewrite UNIX, a popular operating system, and his edits remain in effect today. He also rewrote Java, another computer language, and his legendary status grew. It is often said of Joy that he succeeded in a brave new world where heritage, connections, and status didn’t matter. He was judged solely on his talent, and he won, because he was one of the best. But, Gladwell suggests, arbitrary advantage played a role in Joy’s success as well.
There is no doubt that Bill Joy was brilliant and talented, but Gladwell makes it clear that good fortune and arbitrary chance also played a role in his success—after all, he didn’t even intend to study computer science!
2. Gladwell launches into a discussion about the existence and nature of “innate talent”—the aptitude, intelligence, and capability we are essentially born with. Gladwell concedes that innate talent exists, and that Joy probably had buckets of it. But, he argues, innate talent will never become expertise without practice—lots of practice. He refers to studies that examined the practicing habits of expert and amateur musicians and chess players. These studies found that no expert rose to the top without practice, and no amateur failed in spite of many hours of practice. The more capable individuals were always the individuals who practiced the most.
We know intuitively that successful athletes and chess players and violinists have worked hard and practiced a lot. But we rarely think of success as wholly dependent on having the opportunity and means to practice—Gladwell aims to uncover these often overlooked factors that contribute to success.
Gladwell says that research has even settled on the “magic number” of hours it takes to achieve expertise: it is 10,000 hours. And this holds true even for those select few we consider “prodigies.” By the time Mozart composed his first masterwork he was 21. He had been composing concertos for ten years by this time. This is an important argument against what Gladwell calls the “primacy of talent.” Without the opportunity for intense, prolonged, and concentrated practice, no one can become exceptionally successful in a given field. To become an expert, you need parents who support you and encourage you, and enough money so that you don’t have to work for a living in your spare time. Only extraordinary opportunity gives a person the ability to become an expert.
Gladwell employs research to back up his arguments because his claim that success derives in part from an extreme number of dedicated hours of practice flies in the face of the traditional concept of success: that it comes from talent and “hard work” alone. And 10,000 of practice alone won’t guarantee success, of course: one also needs the support and resources to be able to spend 10,000 free hours practicing.
3. Gladwell returns to his discussion of Bill Joy. Just before Bill Joy enrolled at Michigan, programming was done with punch cards which had to be fed by an operator into the computer. It was such a tedious process, it was nearly impossible to become an expert. Coders spent too much time doing menial, mechanical tasks, and not enough time coding. But when Bill Joy entered school, the computing revolution of “time-sharing” had been invented. Multiple people could connect to one computer with a Teletype and give commands in a program and receive feedback. Suddenly, coding had become a skill one could truly practice. And Michigan, where Joy went to school, was one of the first universities to switch over to time-sharing.
It turns out that if Bill Joy had gone to school before the time sharing revolution had taken place, it would have been impossible for him to put in the hours of practice required to become a computer programming expert. This is a deeply compelling argument for the importance of timing when it comes to success.
Bill Joy didn’t choose Michigan because of its computers. He had never even thought about doing any kind of work in computing when he enrolled there. By happy accident, Joy found himself at one of the only places in the world where a seventeen year old could program all he wanted. Joy says that the difference between computing cards and time-sharing was like “the difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess.” It had become accessible; it had become fun. Joy soon figured out that a bug in the computer’s software allowed him to work indefinitely on the system without having to pay for his time. He neglected his coursework and spent most of every night in the lab. By his second year at Berkeley, in Joy’s own calculation, he had programmed for ten thousand hours.
The opportunities and lucky breaks add up in Bill Joy’s case. After he happens to stumble across a time-sharing computer system, he figures out that he can finagle a way to work without having to pay for time—otherwise the cost of 10,000 hours of work would have been prohibitive. His schedule allows him to spend successive nights in the lab. All of this led to a rapid accumulation of hours of practice, which, in turn, helped enable his success.
4. Gladwell wonders if the ten thousand hour rule applies across cultures and disciplines. He decides to take two (very famous) examples: the Beatles, one of the most popular rock bands of all-time, and Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men. Before the Beatles even arrived in the US, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had already been playing together for seven years. What’s more, those long years of preparation were characterized by the same kind of intensive practice that shaped the careers of professional athletes, Bill Joy, and world-class musicians alike.
Gladwell’s decision to investigate the stories of Bill Gates and the Beatles is an important one. He isn’t simply exploiting the chance to invoke familiar public figures—he wants to challenge culturally dominant ideas about success and how it works by using two success stories almost everyone knows.
5. In 1960, the Beatles were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg didn’t have rock and roll clubs at this time; they had strip clubs. The Beatles were seen performing by a club owner, who asked them to come play in Hamburg. These clubs didn’t pay well; the acoustics weren’t good; the audience didn’t care much about what they were listening to. What made this experience exceptional was the sheer length of time the bands were expected to play: sets were 8 hours long, and they played seven days a week. By the time the Beatles began having major success in 1964, they had played live performances approximately twelve hundred times (more than most bands today ever play live in their lifetimes).
The story of the Beatles’ rise to fame and success doesn’t usually include the fact that they played strip clubs in Hamburg. But, as Gladwell points out, their stint in these clubs was actually an extraordinary opportunity for practice. 8 hour live sets are almost unheard of, and the Beatles played live more than most of their contemporaries. As with so many other outliers, chance opportunity and thousands of hours of practice set the Beatles apart and put them on a course to achieve tremendous success.
5. Gladwell turns to the life and career of Bill Gates. Bill Gates’s story is well known—he is widely recognized as a man who rose to the top of his field through “sheer brilliance and ambition and guts.” But, as ever, the story is more complicated than that. Gates went to a private high school in Seattle, which had a computer club that offered students access to a time-shared computer—most colleges didn’t have computer clubs. Bill Gates, a mere 8th grader in 1968, had a highly unusual opportunity.
Bill Gates’s first great opportunity was a convergence of wealth, privilege, and extraordinary good fortune and timing: he had easy access to a computer in the 1960s, decades before computers became mainstream. This stroke of good luck and timing gave Gates the opportunity to become an expert at computer programming well ahead of his time, which later put him in the perfect position to start Microsoft at the dawn of the personal computer revolution.
The rest of Gates’s life is full of similar lucky breaks and seized opportunities. He manages to secure an internship with a tech company and even spent a semester away from school, honing his programming skills. By Gladwell’s calculation, Bill Gates succeeded because no less than nine extraordinarily rare opportunities presented themselves to him, and all of these were opportunities to practice. By the time Gates started his own software company (after dropping out of Harvard), “he was way past ten thousand hours.”
Gladwell focuses on the nine Gates’s nine opportunities to drive home his point that even the most phenomenal success story ever (Gates remains the richest man on earth to this day) arose from a confluence of various factors, and not just from pure talent or genius.
6. Gladwell argues that Gates, the Beatles, and Joy are all no doubt examples of great talent, but what sets them apart are a series of (often randomly occurring) opportunities. Lucky breaks are not the exception, but the rule.
Gladwell hammers home the most important part of his argument: arbitrary instances of luck are not incidental in success stories: they are in fact essential to success.
Gladwell makes another point about the importance of timing. 14 of the 75 richest people in recorded history were born within 9 years of one another in the 19th century. Many of the most well-known names in software development (Including Gates and Joy) were born between 1953 and 1956. Those 14 wealthy mid-19th century men became outliers because they came of age in one of the greatest economic transformations in American history (the railroad industry and Wall Street financial firms were being built). And the major players in Silicon Valley graduated from college when the idea of personal computers was just beginning to gain some traction. If Gates had been born even just five years earlier or later, it’s possible he never would have become so successful.
Gladwell wraps up this chapter by pointing out that perhaps the greatest lucky break of all in the cases of Gates and Joy is perhaps a factor totally out of their control: their birth date. This most arbitrary of advantages was essential to his success. More broadly, timing is a key factor in every success story.