Author: Malcolm Gladwell, Journalist, The New Yorker
The mystery why some people perform exceptionally well has become my interest. Just because you are clever and hard-working, or athletically gifted and train ferociously, does not necessarily mean you are going to reach the top. Look around and you will likely find many individuals who are just like that. So why do so very few actually make it?
As far as our own athletic performance is concerned we could only dream of being one of these rare exceptions called “outliers”. In Talent is Overrated, we learned that athletic or intellectual gifts are not a prerequisite to exceptional performance. Rather it is the concept of deliberate practice, done over many years (likely around ten), that will consistently reward those who apply. Usually. There must be more to it than just that, and according to Outliers, there is.
Outliers adds several concepts to our understanding of great performers. The first and most comprehensive is how people assemble knowledge and use it to their advantage. In short, information without context is meaningless. You may spend 10 years learning everything there is to know about running and still not have gained much. Take a step too close and you may see what I mean: One pal tells you in order to race faster you have to train slower. Another pal says in order to race faster, you are going to have to train faster. Confusing. Now step back and merge these concepts together into a hard-easy training plan. This starts to make sense. You are well on your way to understanding your body’s stress management and recovery mechanisms.
So much of running knowledge seams to be like this. Sometimes contradictory, sometimes confusing. But if you do your research and think about it long enough, you will find it does all fit together quite well.
My own running knowledge framework used to be shaped like an outhouse. Yes, there was a lot of crap in it. Now, it has grown to a small but well organized bungalow and several additions are in the works. Writing these articles is my form of deliberate practice, putting into context newfound knowledge about running and sharing my eureka moments with my colleagues.
Another important concept from Outliers is the effect our external environment and unrelated circumstances have had on us. This stuff is out of our control but can be very important in determining who reaches the top. For hockey players, Outliers finds the best professional players are born in January. Why? January is the first month after the cut off date for hockey registration. Those kids born in January will have a marginal advantage in physical maturity over other birth months. Many thousands of kids play and get promoted on their talents, from house leagues to select teams to rep teams. Each level is afforded additional opportunities in ice time and quality of a coaching. The best of the best keep getting distilled – that small birth advantage becomes very significant by the time draft age is reached where almost all drafted players are born in the first three months of the year.
A related concept was that adversity creates opportunities. Such adversity is the soil at the root of the smart Chinese student stereotype. Gladwell is fearless here – Koreans, Jews and Jamaicans (the author’s heritage) get their turn as well. He pinpoints where this stereotype originated, in the rice paddies of their homeland. It turns out tending a rice paddy was very hard to do, hard efforts in turn rewarded with bountiful crops. The rural Chinese culture was therefore based on relentless hard work, painstaking attention to details and timing, and its associated reward (prosperity). To get out of the rice paddy meant going to school. No one knew hard work and how to assemble knowledge better than these apparently simple farmers. Gladwell concludes that it is hard and carefully planned work that give Chinese students their advantage, rather than pure intelligence. Can we apply this to running? I think so. Train hard, train relentlessly, but most of all train wisely.
A different kind of adversity is abundant in the highlands of Kenya. The stories of kids running 10k to school are legend. What kid would wish for that? But as thousands of kids play hockey in Canada, so do thousand of kids run to school in Kenya. The elite marathon opportunities that await the best of these kids are their reward simply for making it to school each day. And these kids have their own idols, idols with names like Cheruiyot instead of Gretzky, living in mansions that overlook their towns. It is still adversity, but unlike the first Kenyans who found their way to North America, these kids now know adversity and embrace it. A 2:03 in Boston? No surprise to me, and more is to come.
Why do I run? Outliers prompted me to question my own circumstances (condensed version):
- Ran home from primary school each day. Two reasons. My favourite cartoon was on at four, and a bully liked to pick on me (if she could catch me).
- Accepted into a gifted programme in Grade 6.
- Ran to high school each day. Two miles each way.
- Joined the cross country team. There really weren’t many other sports open to a 4’-6” 80 lb kid.
- Moved to Stoney Creek, but kept going to same high school in Hamilton. Bus service to the ‘burbs stopped at 6:30 pm. I would run the last 2.5 miles home after band practice (usually in 15 minutes depending what was in my pack).
- Took typing class. Learned to ski.
- Stopped running after Grade 12 due to chronic shin splints.
- Got married, moved to Pickering.
- My son was colicky one evening.
- Joined my ski pals for weekend runs.
As you can see, many of the circumstances were beyond my control, others happenstance and others due to the adversity of my environment. My favourite cartoon could have started later (no need to run – except for that bully always trying to kiss me). As a consequence of being in a gifted school programme, I followed my friends to an out of area high school hence the extra distance to school. Having skipped a grade I was also very small. I likely would not have joined cross country if I wasn’t such a shrimp and already a pretty good runner. I could have chosen another subject instead of music, in which case I would not have had to stay after school for band practice, nor had to run home afterward. My dad insisted I should take typing. Ski club was run by the typing teacher and club meetings were held right after typing class. Not long after I moved to Pickering, I took my colicky son on a long car ride to settle him. I ended up discovering some local ski hills and met my first running pals who tricked me into entering the Sporting Life 10k. A road racer is born!
I purchased Outliers in recognition of the runner Malcolm Gladwell, an OFSSA middle distance champion. I expected I would receive many examples on why certain runners achieve exceptional performances. Yet nary a reference to running is offered. However the lessons given are readily transferable to running as I have shown above. Your life’s circumstances may turn you into a runner and perhaps set you up for greatness. And I must add good runners are also accomplished in life, which may explain why Gladwell has become the exceptional author he is today, an outlier in his own right.