Six hours a day, 365 days a year, for 5 years. That’s all it takes. Or some combination of those numbers.
There are a handful of books every aspiring writer should read. One is Drive by Daniel Pink. Another is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The first will impress upon you the difficulty but necessity of self-motivation. The latter will demonstrate its cumulative power.
In Outliers, we learn that the rags-to-riches story of a lone genius overcoming odds is a false one. People often succeed because of cultural heritage, because of where and/or when they were born, because of chance occurrences, and because of opportunities seized. Small advantages become massive advantages. Young Canadian hockey players born in January, February, and March benefit from a year-end cutoff. These boys are larger and swifter than the rest of their cohort. 40% of the top players are born between January and March. Why? Because they are chosen for small differences, are placed into programs where they practice more, and so they get better than their peers. Much better.
One of the last chapters of the book will torment you. It details the progress kids make as they move through elementary school. The kids are grouped according to socioeconomic class. What researchers have found is that the achievement gap grows from 1st grade to 5h grade. Why this is has confounded education experts. Until someone began testing children at the beginning and end of every school year and compared gains over summer break with gains made during the school year. What they found — and you have to see the tables of numbers to appreciate this — is that all of the gains evident at 5th grade are made over the summer break, where low SES kids fall back and higher SES kids surge ahead. Schools aren’t failing kids as much as what they do (0r don’t do) when they aren’t in school is.
Gladwell also looks at several of the lone genius stories and shows how many of these people are products of their times. A list of the 75 wealthiest people in history, which goes all the way back to Cleopatra, shows that 20% were Americans born within 9 years of each other. Between 1831 to 1840, a group that includes Rockefeller, Carnegie, Armour, J.P. Morgan, George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Jay Gould were born. They all became fabulously wealthy in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, just as the railroad and Wall Street and other industries were exploding. Gladwell points out:
“If you were born in the late 1840s you missed it. You were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820s you were too old: your mind-set was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm. But there was a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held.”
I started writing in 2009. That was the year the Kindle 2 was released and the price of e-readers dropped below $300 and then below $250. In 2011, when KDP Select was announced, I was in the first cohort to join and begin using those 5 freebie days. Purely by accident, I was one of the early adopters of serialization, with shorter works priced at 99 cents and longer works priced above $2.99.
I know I’m not that good. I know others are just as good and a whole lot better. But two things Gladwell’s book harps on time and again are opportunity and hard work. For as long as I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve credited luck as a driving force. If I had started writing in 1999, I wouldn’t be sitting in my underwear pecking on a computer right now. (Well, I might, but I’d also be living in my mother’s basement.) If I had continued to procrastinate and had waited until 2019 to self-publish, my works might not have stood out or gained traction.
What can you do with the knowledge found in Outliers? You can learn the potential reward of putting in 10,000 hours of hard work. Even the story of Mozart is debunked, who didn’t hit his stride until he had his 10,000 hours invested. He just got them in earlier than most. I have easily averaged 6 hours a day, every day of the year, for 5 years. I did this with a job and a house to maintain. I did most of the cooking and cleaning during these years. It’s possible. It isn’t easy, but anyone can do it.
That’s the best lesson of this book. Kids from the Bronx graduate from elementary school, and 80% go off to college. When you read the hours they put in, you might be sad for them. I’m not. I’m proud of them. These are kids who get up at 5:30 in the morning and stay in school until 5:00 in the afternoon. They have a shorter summer break. They go to school on Saturday. It seems inhuman by American standards. Meanwhile, students in many Asian countries don’t have a summer break at all. They put in more hours. It’s the reason they score higher on some tests and do well at universities. What’s innate about them? They are from a culture that farms year-round rather than in a fallow-field cycle. Cultural effects that pervade a collective psyche and have enormous and intriguing outcomes.
When I tell people that I used to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to write before work, I’m giving them the secret to my success. That’s the confession of an outlier: I was writing at the right time(s). 2009. 5 am.
You might be reading this in 2014 at 5 pm. Guess what? It’s not too late. There’s tomorrow. And the day after. And it isn’t about getting rich; it’s about a different kind of wealth. If you’ve ever wanted to see what you are capable of, what kind of mark you can leave behind, you have to put in the hours. Outliers is full of remarkable stories of men and women who made the best of their opportunities. You should do yourself a favor and read it. Check it out on Amazon.
32 replies to “Confessions of an Outlier”
As one of my “day jobs”, I run an SES tutoring program in my community. I work with kids every day who are struggling in school and, in most cases, these kids are intelligent and capable. What many of them lack is motivation and a supportive home environment.
I tutored a 6th grade girl last year who was reading at a 5th grade level. She enrolled herself in the SES program because she wanted to be better. With a negligible amount of guidance from me, but a lot of encouragement, she put in the work. I saw her again in the fall and she greeted me with a big smile and told me she had just tested out of the Read 180 class and scored at the 8-10th grade level for reading as a new 7th grader. She thanked me for my help and said her improvement was because of me. I quickly said, “No. Not me. You did this. It was you!”
This girl embraced the Power of Yes. There’s a wonderful TEDxTeen video about this and I wrote a quick blog post about it today. The proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step is very true. We just have to be willing to say yes and take that first step.
This is a great post, Hugh. Too many people downplay how much being in the right place at the right time determines how successful people become.
Sure, hard work is definitely a factor, but luck plays a huge role, too. Thanks for always being honest!
I think this is true, but I think you have to make your own luck too. I think there’s a lot of legwork involved and if you believe in your work enough you can turn that leg work into luck. I mean maybe it is luck, but it’s not like a lottery. In a lottery everyone has the same ticket. You can’t study and perfect you ticket.
I think everyone needs to do their own thing when it comes to luck because if you’re just emulating someone things that worked for them might not work for you. I guess in that aspect it is luck, because you need to know what will catch on.
I also think that you can’t worry about the trends that are out there now or worry about offending people. Not to shamelessly self promote, but I wrote a short story that people keep telling me is gonna piss off a lot of literary agents. It’s about a serial killer who abducts a literary agent. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00J6GUH52
Now if I worried about what every agent was going to think i never would have put the story out. I don’t write to get an agent or a publisher. I write because I love it. I will work my ass off because I think others will like it too. I can’t worry about pissing off a certain segment and looking like I rolled over.
So yes I think it’s luck, but I also think you can create your own luck to some extent. Be yourself and hope the luck comes around your way.
Timing is indeed everything. But curiously, it’s often the second movers who get the real advantage in the market. Google didn’t invent the search engine. Henry Ford did not pioneer the internal combustion engine. You weren’t the first person to publish through KDP.
I often hear that hard work improves your luck. Well, sort of. I know plenty of poor people who work very hard at three jobs. They work longer hours than you do. However, their chances of advancement are pretty much zero. Environment and circumstances are critical.
While there is truth to all this, I also want to point out that you are writing absolutely great stories. I beleive that the best rises to the top and your books are among the best I’ve read in the self published world.
I know you like to point out that anybody can do it because that it the nature of self publishing, however it takes more than just hard work. It takes talent and hardwork. A 6ft 10 inch basketball player who puts in the same amount of effort and hard work is much more likely to become a start basketball player than a 5ft 5 basket ball player.
Its a simple truth but one that is hard to accept, As someone who grew up in poor economic situation, surrounded by poverty and a low priority on educational excellence, I can relate to this. I unlike others, was able to rise up and educate myself. I worked just as hard as others but the results were better. My natural intelligence played as big a role as the hard work I put in.
Everybody wants to be an outlier and most people work hard. Luck is certainly a factor, but innate talent is key when achieving success. Some will be able to work past deficincies, but they will usually be behind those who have both talent and work ethic.
Sometimes, I think you lend too much to luck on your success. You should take a little more credit for the story telling talent you posses.
Quite right, all of it.
Great reply C. Wells.
But I’d also like to contrast this view with Nathan Bransford’s, who states that you don’t need to write every day (he prefers to do his writing at weekends).
I think Neil Gaiman’s take on this is universal – “If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist —”
Well, there goes that nap I was looking forward to this afternoon. Now I’m motivated to write instead :).
Don’t forget the other avenues that help sharpen the writing instrument: a blog, Facebook, Twitter. I often “try out” lines on one of these to see how people react. I also find that since I write humorous satire, it keeps the funny on a constant flow.
I think this might be one of my favorite posts of yours.
Wow. Such a great and inspirational post! I really needed this. In a big rut right now.
And, If I may add, we can look at virtually every successful indie and see a lot of the same things: lots of books, lots of effort and lots of persistence. Everyone likes to talk about how great Wool has done and how remarkably it broke out but I think lot of people forget that Hugh write Molly Fyde, 4 full length novels (plus whatever else he deemed not fit to EVER leave his hard drive) before that happened.
I read that Nora Roberts wrote 12 books before having a bestseller. 12 full length novels which had to be pushed through the traditional system when she, most likely, wasn’t making enough to live off them, before finding “success”. Every month is NaNoWriMo for the incomparable Elle Casey. Sounds phenomenal to be H.M. Ward right now but she had almost a dozen novels available before “Damaged” took off, and lifted her sales across the board. Sounds equally nice to be JoeNobody right now; as a military guy and outdoorsy type myself I can tell you there’s a lifetime of training and practice behind the content in his prepper books.
This is the kind of stuff I don’t think can be said enough to aspiring newbs
I hear you, Hugh. I am trying to get even 2 hours a day in between the rest of life. I believe that I am about 2/3 of the way through.
Thanks for being an encouraging force is this overwhelming world of indie pub. I am still looking for my raft that’ll get me above this flood.
Hugh, you never fail to inspire. Thanks for the reminder that your success did not come over night. It came after years of hard work.
This is such a truthful and inspirational post.
My favorite example of being in the right time and place comes from having the ‘when is it best to have a baby conversation’. I’ve had this conversation a few times seeing that my wife is now pregnant.
As a Childrens nurse I have always argued that a Spring leading on the Summer baby is best allowing the little one to avoid those winter bugs that quite often hospitalize a new born.
My wife on the other hand is a primary school teacher so argues for a autumn leading on to a winter baby. This would allow the little one to be the oldest in the class intake rather than the youngest. Its well documented that these children do far better in the first year(s) at school purely because they are 1/6th of a lifetime older at that stage.
Hugh, your 6 hrs a day put my (at least but often more) 45 minute I dedicate to writing daily to shame.
Though have this conversation with me a year ago and, well lets be honest it would be zero minutes on a regular bases. As I increase my commitment 5 minutes every 30 days or so I’l get there, eventually.
I recently heard the phrase
“It takes a good ten years of graft to become an overnight sensation.”
Sounds about right to me.
Now back to that story.
Excellent post, as always, Hugh. I have four kids, and the academic impact of summer break on them is terrible. I’m all for having kids be kids, enjoying being young, etc., but the fact is that if we don’t keep them on a learning routine during the summer, it’s like their brains don’t re-engage for academic learning until October/November — and then what? Winter break hits. It’s insidious, and I can’t begin to estimate the toll it takes on our personal and national productivity/achievement over the long-term.
Also as always, you are far too humble, Hugh. Your writing has a beauty and depth that speaks to your 10,000 (or whatever multiple thereof) hours having been put in *with concerted, constant effort toward improvement*, and that is part of why you’ve enjoyed such deserved success.
That said, I think it’s easy for people like me to feel we’ve missed the bus. The indie boom of 2010-2012 has come and gone, boo hoo. Now it’s just overcrowding and work, work, work. Sure, that’s life. But the reason I missed THIS boom is because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t prepared to be lucky. When KDP came along, I didn’t have a backlist or an everyday writing process in place so that I could capitalize on opportunity when it struck. The thing we forget is that there will be MORE booms, more places where content will be needed. We can’t guess what those next waves will look like or where they’ll hit, but it’s a safe bet that they will arrive eventually. The challenge is to have your 10,000 hours done and your daily process in place so that you’re ready to seize the next boom when it starts. And if you happen to find your audience along the way while putting in those 10,000 hours, well, even better, right?
You are so right about the long summer vacations and the winter breaks impacting our children’s learning. I would much prefer longer school days with graduation from high school at 16 years-old. At 16 years-old, a child can drive and work legally in the US. The mid-teen years is a great time to intern or apprentice somewhere and then move on to college, the military, or the skilled workforce. Instead a child’s potential is wasted during those wait times. Longer school days would work only if the public school system would learn to make and take the most out of every minute. We live in the technological age of the 21st century, yet the mentally of the public school system is stuck in the Middle Ages.
Everything takes practice–even making toast that doesn’t burn!
I don’t think those successful kids were successful because their parents made them do school during the summer. My parents never made us do school during the summer. I think it has more to do with the kinds of activities they thought were fun and relaxing. The successful kids had been socialized to find activities that (unbeknownst to them and possibly to their parents) happened to have more educational value than the activities of the unsuccessful kids.
Excellent post. This stuck out to me:
“When I tell people that I used to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to write before work, I’m giving them the secret to my success.”
This is what turned it around for me, how I wrote five books in the space of fifteen months. A lot of people seem to not think it’s important, or that they can just do it in the evening instead…but then again, what’s going to interrupt you or distract to you at 5 in the morning? Not much. There’s a great short book about this called “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast” that changed my life.
Cool post and thanks, Kyle, for that book title. I will definitely be checking it out!
Wonderful post. And not just because I agree with you about the insights shared by Gladwell in, Outliers. There are scads of stories of the rich and famous – before they became rich and famous. One of the most compelling is no doubt that of the Beatles. They were not much different than other bands of their day and their place in the world. There were others. Many others, in fact. Ringo was in another band initially that was more popular than the Beatles. But most have never heard of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
The Beatles played their butts off. They wrote songs. They got experimental, took advantage of every opportunity that came their way, and they found themselves at the very top of the entertainment heap. Their reward to themselves was to just keep on working, writing, recording, pushing their personal and professional limits. In the process they became the gold standard that musicians and composers are measured by for the next 50 years and well into the future, I have no doubt.
Boil it all down to one sentence and we’re left with a simple but elegant phrase. Do the work. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a basketball player, play ball. If you want to summit Everest, start climbing mountains and keep doing it until you reach your goals.
Nobody ever became a raging success by sitting in their family room snacking on chips, blazing through the channels with their remote, muttering, “I’m going to be the best in the world at XXXXXXX. And I’m going to get started right after this movie, or the ballgame, or the news, or the….”
Another great one, Hugh! I wrote my first novel in 1992 and spent almost 20 years getting an agent but not a publisher, TV interest but not a contract, lots and lots of not-quite-there’s. And while I did all that I was writing more books and putting in my hours.
Now that I’m self-published I get a lot of 5-star reviews…so all that time spent trying to make it was perfect for honing my craft.
Loved “Outliers”! Glad you shared your thoughts on how valuable it is for writers and everybody else.
Great post, Hugh. My experience is similar to Patrice’s, above. I’ve been writing novels for over twenty years—lots of rejection, several nibbles, but putting in the time. After one of those projects was picked up in 2010, I’ve been self-publishing ever since, taking advantage of all those years of craft and lessons learned. Outliers is a great metaphor for what we all go through. Thank you.
Great post! Outliers is something everyone should read. Not to get depressed, but just to understand yet another of the facets that can influence, but do *not* define, an individual’s fate.
Hard work and practice are two of the elements that everyone can control themselves. No matter their beginning, no matter their luck, no matter that every other factor might not line up with the stars, those two factors are theirs alone.
And it doesn’t have to be time all alone in front of a computer either. I spent so many hours I can’t even begin to count them writing stories in my head in the dark of night on the bridge of a ship or when I couldn’t sleep because I was about to go on watch. You can do it any way that will fit into your life. Computers help, but napkins work.
But…umm…Hugh? Can you put your pants on?
Excellent post. Reminds me of the quote from Jujitsu Sensei Montero that the student must practice a throw 10,000 times to master it.
Thanks for the recommendations, Hugh! The two books sound like great reads.
I usually write after 10pm, when the children are all safe in bed, and sometimes stay up till one in the morning, pecking away at the keys. Waking up at 5am isn’t a possibility for me, my brain wouldn’t function that soon. But I’m still putting in the hours, and really that’s what counts.
Sit down and write… or paint, or code, or make music, or whatever it is you want to do. But do it. If you can’t find time for it, even if it’s just ten minutes a day, then just how serious are you?
I’ll take slight umbrage in that the 10,000 hour rule has been debunked (see here), and some of the stories in the book don’t ring true (what about all the other athletes who fit the profile but didn’t go on to become elite?), but obviously practice and hard work are important.
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I was writing at 5 a.m. in 2009. But I wasn’t jumping on the indie bandwagon. I’m more risk-averse. I wanted traditional publication. So that’s another element of luck and daring for you, Hugh. You took the leap when most of us wouldn’t.
Yep, now the field is more crowded and it’s harder to rise above the crowd and make a living. But it’s still a lot easier for most of us to get published and make at least a little money. Lou Schuler put it this way: “If the book sits on my hard drive gathering giga-dust, I have zero readers. If it’s out there on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, andSmashwords, I have zero + something.” (http://www.louschuler.com/blog/the-business-of-writing/)
Some of you probably know the Zen story about good luck/bad luck (http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/2005/06/Bad-Luck-Good-Luck-Who-Knows.aspx). To me, it’s like, good luck: I was writing in 2009.
Bad luck: No traditional publishing offers.
Good luck: I did indie publish at the end of 2010.
Bad luck: Not as successfully as Hugh Howey.
Good luck: But I had a backlist to unleash, thanks to my prior writing, and my non-fiction took off.
Bad luck: Fiction, not so much.
Good luck: Now I’m getting traction on Kobo, starting yesterday.
Bad luck? Who knows?
It’s a roller coaster for sure. But I’m enjoying the ride, and Hugh’s cheerful voice along the way. Thanks.
During the past 10 (actually more) years, I have worked two different jobs, been a wife and parent to 2 young children and wrote, re-wrote, edited, re-wrote (rinse, repeat) my novel, “Almost Royalty.” My novel is going to be published on May 28, 2014 and it currently on goodreads.com, gathering reviews. It has been long, long road, . . . and it’s just beginning.
I appreciate Hugh’s “Outliers” article and Malcolm Gladwell’s book, as it synthesized something that many people organically understood– as the old joke goes “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: Practice, practice.” As Malcolm Gladwell quantified, it takes consistent effort over many, many years (10,0000 hours) before expertise is reached in any area. But truthfully, Hugh, whether your book was published now, 2011, 1995, or earlier, you would have eventually found an audience for one reason: Just like Stephen King (who started many, many years before pre-Kindle Select and is experiencing success with Doctor Sleep) you continue to write interesting, exciting stories that resonate with readers and continue to to consistently “practice” –or work– very, very hard.
To anyone reading this who is an emerging writer, I wish you all the success the world and KEEP WRITING EVERY DAY!