Monday, December 08, 2008

Why almost nothing makes sense to me.

I can't understand how something I read seems to explain the ways of the world in a way that is so sensible, so inherently true, so logical and reasonable...and then, just when I'm settling into my comfort zone of my new-found wisdom, I witness the exact opposite thing happening.

Case in point: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, my favorite journalist on the planet. I can't begin to explain the entire book here but will summarize by saying he takes a surprising look at "success" and what makes people successful, and in his typical way, gives his readers plenty to think over and ponder along the way.

One of his more provocative passages discusses the sheer energy and amount of time truly successful people invest in learning their skills or their art to become experts at what they do. He discusses the idea of "10,000 hours" as the amount of time that continually comes up in discussions of how people became experts: they've invested that much time into bettering their skills and consistently improving, working, dedicating themselves to getting it right.

Outliers has much more than this to it and I'd recommend it highly - pick it up if you want to read something more inspiring than the headlines about the next major collapse of a giant in business or the media.

But here's where nothing makes sense. Just as I finished Outliers, I read a profile of National Book Award winner, Annette Gordon-Reed. Ms. Gordon-Reed won her award in November for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello. In it, she discusses the Hemings family tree, and the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.

In the short profile I read, I found exactly the sort of person of 'success' that Gladwell profiles in his book, plus a lot more. When discussing her work, Gordon-Reed reveals that in addition to the years she spent writing about Jefferson, she spent 10 or 11 hours a day, 7 days a week, for about 8 years researching and writing her award-winning book.

Think about that investment in time and effort. Even on the low end, she spent 70 hours a week 52 weeks a year, for about 8 years. In other words: more than 29,000 hours went into this book. That is commitment and dedication and single-minded purpose. This is a woman with a message she feels absolutely compelled to share, in the most perfect way she can.

Then, just when I think Gladwell and Gordon-Reed are the success model come-to-life, I read a story about author Alec Greven. He has written a new advice book, titled How to Talk to Girls. In it, he gives the male species terrific, succinct bits of wisdom, that he claims he picked up by watching his friends interact with girls. One of the more straightforward suggestions include 'comb your hair and don't wear sweats.' What could be wrong with that? He gets a little more interpretive when he cautions that 'pretty girls are like cars that need a lot of oil.'

I'm not sure how much time Alec put into pursuing his publishing dream. But given that he's only been on the planet for about 79,000 hours total, and I'm guessing that for about 35,000 of those he was illiterate, he's going to have to convince he me spent 10,000 hours becoming a writer, one who is excellent enough to have landed a publishing deal. (Alec is nine years old.)

See how this doesn't make sense? I know - people may say, "But he's not a national book award winner!! He's charming, quirky, here-today-gone-tomorrow gimmicky author. You can't compare him to someone like Annette Gordon-Reed."

To which I say: you're right. I can't. But it feels like I can (on my bad days) and it doesn't feel good.

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