Friday, April 30, 2010

How you got to be who you are - or didn't

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, analysis

The basic formula for success can be stated two ways. Most generally, we are told that it takes ten years of practice, whether at music, programming, or selling shirts, to become an expert. It helps to have talent in an area, but untrained talent is trumped by educated and/or trained persistence. A more specific way to state the principle is that one must practice for 10,000 hours. Then one is ready for life-altering opportunities (and it doesn't hurt to grab any that come a long sooner).

A work year of 40-hour weeks with a two-week vacation has 2,000 "clock" hours. If one is persistent and diligent, 10,000 hours of experience is gained in five to six years. This is why many offers of employment ask for five years' experience. I have a friend who is a music prodigy. She practiced piano up to eight hours daily beginning at age 13, so when she was 18 and entered college, she was winning contests and getting opportunities to play with symphony orchestras frequently.

I never practiced music eight hours a day, but I did practice for four hours most days, for several years, plus playing for an hour or two at frequent gigs, beginning age 14. I was well on my way to a career in music, but decided I didn't like working nights. More about me later.

The 10,000 hour rule is one of the basic elements discussed in Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. This book was not what I expected. I was expecting a Horatio Alger-like discussion of people with names like Gates, Forbes and Buffet, plus maybe Michael Jordan. Instead, I found a fascinating analysis of the facets of successful performance, which boil down to:
  • Become really good at something, or no more than two or three things.
  • Work hard and persistently at perfecting your chosen craft, for several years.
  • Jump at every opportunity to improve, whether it is job offers or free use of required equipment.
  • Take care of those who help you and they'll take care of you.
  • Repeat.
My back-door entry into computer programming is an example. Although I studied three sciences in college, a chance occurrence planted a crucial seed. As readers of this blog know, I am a voracious reader. During my freshman year, one of my roommates took a FORTRAN class. I came across his textbook on a boring day and read the first few chapters. It seemed very logical and simple to me. FORTRAN syntax can be learned at one sitting, and I did so.

Two years passed. I left college after my sophomore year to earn some money. Near the end of my first year of employment as a lab technician (optics and vacuum), I was asked if I had any interest in learning to use the computer: the IT department had a 2-year backlog getting new software written. My colleague had a book of programmed instruction in FORTRAN that I could use. He said, "Look it over for a couple days and tell me what you think." I went through the entire set of lessons in two days, and asked if I could punch in a program I wrote as an exercise for myself (on a card punch. This was 1968). I was shown how to use a card punch. I punched up about forty cards that made up my first computer program, was shown how to load it, and it ran. No errors. I worked there for two years after that, about half my time writing FORTRAN programs needed to do analysis of our lab data. All this while I was taking night classes.

When I left work (everyone was laid off during the 1970 recession), I returned to college full time, and got a science degree in 1972. No programming until the next year: I got a job as a machinist for a university Physics department, and did some programming on the side for the Physics department head. Two years of that, and I got a job at an engineering company, as a draftsman/designer. After a year of design, I worked my way into an estimating job, where I had access to a computer again. By then (1975), there were no card punches, but terminals. I had the first half of my 10,000 hours worked off and was getting rather proficient. Three years later, having done almost full time programming, I left the job to go to graduate school and dragged my wife to the frozen North, with more than 10,000 hours of FORTRAN experience tagging along for the ride.

Here is a key opportunity, one of the biggest. I visited the campus four months before classes started. One person I visited was director of the computer center. We talked shop for a while. It turned out I was using the same kind of mainframe and OS as the university used. He offered me a job on the spot, tutoring students in the main computer lab. So I was a science student, but quickly became an adjunct professor of computer science. I was there eight years, and had another 10,000 hours of scientific and technical programming, plus OS programming, under my belt by the time a large oil company headhunted me, not as a scientist, but as a scientific programmer. That was 24 years ago, and I continued to write scientific software until about ten years ago.

The key opportunity then came about because I have cultivated other skills, because the company, by fiat, quit using "ancient" languages such as FORTRAN at that time. Of course, I wasn't wedded to FORTRAN; programming itself is the skill, and it is easy to pick up specific language skills. So I have since programmed in Pascal, C, Basic and Perl, but I am not as fast in them as in FORTRAN. I took advantage of my classical education and a mind full of thousands of books, and became an Info Scientist, which I am now. I can knock out a program when I need one, but it isn't my core job any more.

I am, of course, not a success at the level of the people like Bill Gates (who began programming about the time I did, but got his 10,000 hours in several years earlier). But I've lived well enough, and continue to enjoy my work. Why retire (I could) when there's fun work to do? I am not quite being paid to read, and I'd probably find that a bit wearing. I find the best days include an hour or three of steady reading, no more. My work is more curatorial.

One chapter of Gladwell's book contrasts the rice-growing culture of Asia with the ranching culture of the West. To successfully grow rice in China, you have to work a 100 hour week. Ask a corn farmer what kind of work week he has: 60-80 is common. Rancher friends of mine work less than I do. Apply such cultural expectations to schoolwork. In Asian schools, the kids typically are in school 10-11 months per year, and have longer days. Compared to rice paddy work, they feel they are well off. Is it any surprise that when such youngsters attend a college in North America or Europe, they do very well?

My Japanese wife tells of abacus contests. Learning the abacus from an early age makes basic arithmetic easier. Get used to an abacus and it shows you the problem; soon your fingers work out the result almost without your thinking about it. After fifth grade, the abacus contests at my wife's schools were done without an abacus. Kids could visualize an abacus in their mind and work the virtual beads much faster than their fingers could fly over a real abacus. Lightning calculators are much more common in Asia than anywhere else as a result. Somebody with 10,000 hours on an abacus can outdo anybody on a 10-key adding machine by a large factor. Plus this instills in them the basic concept of mathematics: Operators. Once you realize that the + or the x represents an operator, a machine that takes two or more numbers and operates on them to produce another number, then the D operator of differential calculus is easy to figure out; it makes slopes into numbers. And the rest of math is equally transparent. It is all operators.

The standard joke about "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Practice, practice, practice – well, that is step one. As the author shows, opportunities arise all the time, but our ability to grasp them depends on timing and readiness. Very few kids had the chance to use a mainframe computer at age 19 like I did. Even fewer were using time-shared terminals at that very same time, as Bill Gates did. Sure, he had a certain business sense also, but it was his computer expertise that "let him into the room" to make a business deal with IBM, that got Microsoft off the ground.

This review is already long, so I'll end. Pardon my raving. I rarely find a nonfiction book that is a page-turner on a par with the best fiction. This book is an exception. I find in the author's bio that he used to write for the Washington Post. He's got his 10,000 hours in as a writer; must have something to do with it.

1 comment:

pankaj said...

Good read. I surely liked every bit of it.