Outliers and developing exceptional abilities

Video: Creative Achievement – How Long Does It Take?

Audio clip in the video: Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich) talking to one of his students, Jerome, in “Art School Confidential” (2006).

Audio clip: Malcolm Gladwell on the “10,000 hour rule” from The Charley Rose Show in 2009, from video: “Malcolm Gladwell – Outliers 1 (2009).”

“Achievement is talent plus preparation.” – One of Gladwell’s quotes from his article “Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule” – see more quotes and link below.

Image in video: High speed water-ink photography from his Kusho series by artist Shinichi Maruyama.


“The natural trajectory of giftedness in childhood is not a six-figure salary, perfect happiness, and a guaranteed place in Who’s Who.

“It is the deepening of the personality, the strengthening of one’s value system, the creation of greater and greater challenges for oneself… becoming a better person and helping make this a better world.”

Linda Kreger SilvermanThat quote by Dr. Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Child Development Center, is a reminder that even for those who are gifted and talented, financial and social success may not be automatic or assured – but we can still be making positive contributions.

(The quote is from my article Reaching for Excellence: Gifted Students)

What makes an ‘Outlier’?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, describes in his book Outliers: The Story of Success some of the personal and social aspects of how people become outstanding, “outliers” on the upper end of intelligence, ability and achievement curves.

“To truly master any skill, Gladwell suggests, leaning on various pieces of research, requires about 10,000 concentrated hours. If you can get those hours in early, and be in a position to exploit them, then you are an outlier.”

That quote is from a Guardian newspaper article by Tim Adams, who further describes what Gladwell is saying about exceptional people.

“You might expect Outliers in this regard to be a handbook for the self-made man, a re-statement of the dream of American individualism; in fact it is the polar opposite of that,” Adams writes.

“Gladwell’s contention is not only that success is the result of a complicated mix of social advantages but also that the insistence that some individuals have extra-special gifts and talents, are geniuses in particular fields, or pull themselves up by their bootstraps, is incredibly destructive to society’s idea of itself.

“‘No one,’ he says, ‘not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.'”

From The man who can’t stop thinking, by Tim Adams, guardian.co.uk.

~ ~

Looking at the forest, not just the tall trees

On his site www.gladwell.com Gladwell comments, “If you go to the bookstore, you can find a hundred success manuals, or biographies of famous people, or self-help books that promise to outline the six keys to great achievement. (Or is it seven?)

“So we should be pretty sophisticated on the topic. What I came to realize in writing Outliers, though, is that we’ve been far too focused on the individual – on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world.

Malcolm Gladwell“And that’s the problem, because in order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them – at their culture and community and family and generation. We’ve been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest.”

In an excerpt of his book, Gladwell writes, “If you put together the stories of hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates, I think we get a more complete picture of the path to success.

“Joy, Gates and the Beatles are all undeniably talented. Lennon and McCartney had a musical gift, of the sort that comes along once in a generation, and Joy, let us not forget, had a mind so quick that he could make up a complicated algorithm on the fly that left his professors in awe.

“A good part of that ‘talent’, however, was something other than an innate aptitude for music or maths. It was desire.

“The Beatles were willing to play for eight hours straight, seven days a week. Joy was willing to stay up all night programming. In either case, most of us would have gone home to bed.

“In other words, a key part of what it means to be talented is being able to practise for hours and hours – to the point where it is really hard to know where ‘natural ability’ stops and the simple willingness to work hard begins.”

Gladwell thinks it is often external events, including birth during “fortunate” periods of history, that nurture talent development.

“What is so striking about these success stories is that the outliers were the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity. Lucky breaks don’t seem like the exception with software billionaires, rock bands and star athletes; they seem like the rule.”

From A gift or hard graft?, The Guardian Nov 15 2008 – an extract from Outliers: The Story Of Success.

In a Creativity Post article, Milena Z. Fisher refers to this widely circulated and embraced idea of long and targeted practice:

“Remember that wildly popular myth about how mastering any skill requires 10,000 of deliberate practice? It might have some validity in certain disciplines. Now we have modified the finding: creativity requires constant and steady progress – if you produce a lot you will get there! Don’t get me wrong; perseverance, practice, grit and motivation are indispensible traits. But sometimes we tend to forget that changing a routine might be better for ideation than wrestling indefinitely inside the same paradigm.”

[From Elephants in the Room of Creativity and Innovation Talk, Milena Z. Fisher, Ph.D., The Creativity Post Sep 09, 2013.]

Fisher refers to another article in which Gladwell addresses critiques and misunderstandings of the famed “10,000 hour rule” and refers again to research that “cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed.

“There’s a reason the Beatles didn’t give us ‘The White Album’ when they were teen-agers. And if the surgeon who wants to fuse your spinal cord did some newfangled online accelerated residency, you should probably tell him no.

He adds, “It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly. What [researchers] Simon and Chase wrote forty years ago remains true today. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.”

From Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, August 21, 2013.

Geena DavisPhoto: Oscar-winning actor Geena Davis has commented: “I took up archery in real life just because I thought I’d like to do a sport that’s not the ‘movies’ version. It really changed my self-image, my body perception.”

An article notes, “Just two years after picking up the sport, she tried out for the U.S. national squad and placed among the semi-finalists for the U.S. women’s archery team for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I think I’d always felt uncoordinated and not physically capable of doing a lot of things,” Geena said. “It was so transformative… and it feels fabulous when I accomplish something.”

[Eight Surprising Celebrity Talents…Who Knew?]

(Geena Davis is a grad of Boston University and member of Mensa – see many other people on my [old, not updated] list of Gifted / talented arts celebrities.)

OutliersBooks by Malcolm Gladwell :

Outliers: The Story of Success

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants – (“Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a mediocre school, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks.” Amazon.com)

Abilities vs strengths

Related perspectives on how talents get developed are expressed by Rena F. Subotnik, Director of The EKR Center for GiftedEducation Policy.

She notes “All children and adults have strengths, but not everyone has abilities that could lead to outstanding performance or the development of great ideas in adulthood.

“Abilities are domain specific, that is, one can have abilities in music, chess, language, mathematics etc. Those abilities need to be developed through good instruction, through persistence on the part of the person with abilities, and support from some important people in the environment (peers, parents, or teachers).

“Another factor to keep in mind, is that many of these abilities are hard to detect. One reason is that many domains don’t get explored in school, so if you are potentially gifted in chess and never have access to a chess program, the gift is not likely to be developed.”

The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life SpanRena F. Subotnik is one of the editors of the upcoming book The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span, and notes, “Our book talks about at least two important variables that affect functioning.

[From online chat The Evolving Definition of Giftedness, November 19 2008 www.edweek-chat.org]

“One is ethnic minority status and how such status can be an advantage and disadvantage in talent development. Another is the psychosocial component. As individuals move into the ‘elite’ level in a domain, we can expect that they have mastered the content and skills of that domain.

“The things that differentiate them from others at that level is how creative they are with that information and how skillfully and passionately they communicate and relate to others. Social skills play a large role in successful expression of talent.”


Related article: Taking the leap to become an expert.

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Originally posted 2008-11-22 20:19:06.


  1. Just a mom of 2 fab kids says

    This is a truly excellent book to make you think about what you believe is the “key to success”. The author makes some really good connections and points about many different factors. Do the stars just align for some? Do the others just need 20,000 hours? Does it really matter if the individual is rewarded in a way that is meaningful to them? Looking at what factors work in your favor though may help you to assess a good way to open the doors you decide are necessary to a successful life on your terms.

  2. Anonymous says

    A good read, get it if available. Both true: The only place success comes before work is

    in the dictionary, and no one does it all by themself. The flip side of that second truth is,

    as capacities clamor to be used and if no one’ll let you in, getting to be all you can be (for its own sake, not just to plug the Army) can be exceedingly hard for gifted people to do. True, Chris Langan (shown in the book) is keeping his mind active (and, true, staying in school and “selling” his ability better would’ve given him greater chances) but he’s not contributing and would probably be happier if her were.

  3. says

    I think that success can be different on any person. Some people would be able to work those 10,000 hours for success, but others prefer to live their life and see where it takes them. It depends on each situation in particular and you can’t really generalize. That books seems interesting, I may buy it. Thanks!

  4. says

    @Great article.


    go to those high iq test sites, the really really hard ones and they usually have links to all kinds of cool stuff. Philosophy blogs are another place to meet some gifted thinkers. Have you tried getting into Mensa? There are a number of organizations like mensa. Just google mensa and there will be other results that will show organizations similar to mensa.

    @The Post

    Desire is key to talent development because for each measure of desire we lack we need an equal measure of discipline to supplement it. Curiosity is also very good for developing talent. As desire wanes over time try to remain curious or better yet stimulate yourself in your own way to become curious.

  5. Douglas Eby says

    My sense is that most truly gifted or high ability people are reluctant to identify or label themselves as such. One way to look for groups or people to connect with is to look for groups on some specific interests such as high sensitivity – take a look at some of these sites :

    Gifted – OGTOC – Our Gifted Online Conferences: A Gathering Place for All Gifted

    Highly Sensitive Souls – This group is about sharing ideas, finding support, and networking with other HSP’s.

    Gifted-related groups at Ning

    HSPBook – Yahoo group for readers of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person

    List of sites on my Highly Sensitive site

    Giftedness / high ability related sites

  6. Eva says

    I’d like to know how to meet other gifted adults. I can’t seem to find any websites, threads etc. Even on social networking sites and the like, not only are they difficult to identify, but sometimes they dont even recognise the trait in themselves. Any advice?


What do you think of this topic?