Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers book: applications for rowing


Outliers Book Cover

Part of my lazy Christmas period was spent reading  Malcolm Gladwell’s  Outliers. A fascinating book, as all of Gladwell’s are.  I was struck by the relevance of what he has to say to our sport of rowing.  The subject of how to find and nurture talent is a perennial one and I have touched on it in some previous blogs.

What Gladwell has to say in Outliers is that success has less to do with talent than we generally think and more to do with the circumstances around the individual.  He suggests that there are many more with the potential to be a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, John Lennon or Paul Macartney than we realise.

Gladwell claims that while talent is obviously necessary for success there are many talented people who don’t succeed because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or don’t get the right opportunities.  In Gladwell’s world success comes to the talented and diligent who are lucky enough to get opportunities.  And he puts a measure on diligent – 10,000 hours seems to be a key threshold.  The Beatles spent thousands of hours on stage in Hamburg when other bands had one or two gigs a week, Gates spent thousands of hours programming computers before they were readily available to the public, Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley and was mentored by Bill Hewlett of Hewlett Packard.

Culture and attitude are also investigated and Gladwell doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable questions about why ethnicity seems to be linked to success in some fields.  He links Asian success and ability in mathematics to a culture that works hard and quotes a Chinese proverb “No one who rises before dawn 360 days a year can fail to make his family rich.” He points out that rice growers work harder than other peasants and speculates that this has led to a culture where effort is expected and suggests that the reason that Asian students are excelling at maths in western schools has little to do with ability or genetics and lots to do with culture and behaviour.

So what has this to do with rowing?  I think there are several lessons for us all here:  More people are talented than you think; Training may have more to do with success than talent; Maybe you need to row 10,000 hours before you reach your peak!

10,000 hours!  Yes, it equates to about 100,000 kilometres.  Ten to twelve years of full-on training before you reach your potential. Or put another way, you reach your best well into your twenties and perhaps not even then.  So, what is your club doing to help your young people achieve their potential?

For me the idea of 10,000km to make the top brings two things to mind; Miles make Champions as the original training guru Steve Fairbairn said, and Richard Tonks, unquestionably the most successful coach in NZ Rowing history and his straightforward regime of rowing more than the opposition.

So when I go back to coaching next Saturday after my Christmas break (I know, I am only a part timer!) I will be encouraging my athletes to row further and making sure I look at more than just the best one in a crew as being talented.


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