Gladwell, Taleb, and 10,000 Lottery Tickets

My friend Chaz recently commented on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and wondered what thing in his life was worthy of the required devotion to turn something small and simple into something big and meaningful.

How does regular become irregular? How does normal become abnormal? How should we put our finger (and maybe 10,000 hours worth of effort) onto the scale in order to tip it in our favor?

I’m reminded of Nassim Taleb’s explanation of outliers, specifically the extremely rare events known as black swans (as discussed in his book The Black Swan). Taleb says that by definition, black swans are unknowable in advance. In their pure form, we can’t seek outliers in the future so much as recognize them after the fact.

Individually, that means our own personal outcomes and attempts to “tip the scale” may be dwarfed by societal artifacts. Gladwell shows how the odds of becoming a pro (Czech) hockey or soccer player were heavily correlated to birth month and the class age enrollment cutoff, where being slightly older in your age group gave you a career-launching advantage.

That’s not a scale that’s easily tipped, that’s a serious luck factor. It still requires a proverbial 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to go all the way, but without the appropriate starting conditions – like a birthday in the first half of the year, we may never gain traction at all.

Still, per Chaz’s point, how should we choose what to put 10,000 hours into?

Taleb offers his own variation on what to do in his later book Antifragile. Since we can’t predict a black swan (I’d call becoming a pro athlete one), he says we can focus on things that benefit from variable outcomes, aka volatility. We should especially focus on activities that have low risk, and major positive potential (asymmetrical risk vs. reward relationships).

For example, networking with interesting people can’t really hurt you and who knows what could come out of a new friendship, while spending time with the same old curmudgeons is unlikely to open up any new doors. With or without 10,000 hours, these are activities where we put our trust in luck to occasionally work in our favor.

If we combine Gladwell and Taleb, the question of “what should we focus on,” is best answered by figuring out what activities offer a range of non-damaging, potentially beneficial outcomes that we can plow our time into. Maybe we don’t need to put 10,000 hours into one task, but we can certainly divide up our commitment across several categories where we’ve identified an environmental advantage.

To borrow from Gladwell’s athlete example, age and interests are two good areas to start with. Ask what same age professionals in your industry that are trying to advance themselves are you personally engaged with today? From LinkedIn to coffee, there are a million low-risk introduction options to take.

The point is not to bank on any one outcome, but to create a group of potential lottery tickets in our lives that the world can scratch for us.

All we need is for one to hit.

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