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Academic Lessons from The Story of Success

Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers: The Story of Success on what it takes to be successful in life and work, and he has some very interesting arguments that provide us valuable lessons on success in academia, or success in a PhD program.

The Roseto Mystery

In the introduction, we learn that inhabitants of the town Roseto live longer, healthier lives because they have such a closely-knit community. For a PhD project, it is important that you find your community of peers: your fellow students or an online community.

For a successful academic career, a good network in your field with fellow academicians and practitioners is important. You can build your network and visibility online and through conferences.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

What does it take to be a good professional? About 10,000 hours of practice, according to Gladwell. How does that translate to the PhD?

If you consider the average length of 3 to 4 years for a PhD course, you end up with on average 3,5 years of experience in research and writing.
At 65 hours per week, and 52 weeks per year, minus holidays and the time required to travel to conferences, an average student works about 65 hr/wk*(52 wk – 8 wk) per year.
The magic number of 10,000 hours then appears when you consider:  

3,5 yr * 65 hr/wk*(52 wk – 8 wk)= 10,000 hr

Does this calculation show us that you need 10,000 hours to master every skill in life?

I don’t think so, just like Tim Ferriss thinks you don’t need that much time to learn basketball technique. But to become a professional at something, for example, becoming a researcher, 10,000 hours in the apprenticeship time as a PhD Candidate seems feasible to me.

The Trouble with Geniuses

Another interesting aspect Gladwell discusses is the threshold level for intelligence. Success relates to your IQ, but only until a certain threshold.

You need to be smart enough for graduate studies, but once you go over the threshold IQ, there seems to be little difference between the smart kid and the slightly smarter kid.

What matters after the threshold are your other skills, and your savvy to negotiate and interact with others. Indeed, in academia, being smart is not enough – you need to learn your craft and your skills as well. 

The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

Joe Flom didn’t take the typical path a lawyer in post-war New York followed, as the WASP lawyers in the large existing offices wouldn’t hire the young Jewish graduate. Instead, he started working on different things.

If you are lucky enough to get hired by an institution with long academic standing, and be put on tenure track, you know what your road will look like.

But there are other options too, although less straight-forward. With my graduation in sight, and a lingering economic crisis worldwide, I might need to go with my axe into the woods and carve my own path.

Harlan, Kentucky

In rugged Appalachia, a “culture of honor” prevails, which -according to Gladwell- can still be found in the reactions of Southerners as compared to people from the Northern States.

If you move through the academic world and over the continents in pursuit of your academic career, you might find that cultural differences are very large. When you are new in a country, try to make friends with the locals.

When in doubt on how to handle situations (will someone be offended, is doing this polite or not, how do I bring up this issue?) ask your local trustee.
Even though I’m a Belgian in the Netherlands, I still sometimes need to ask a local if something is OK or not.

The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

Along the same lines, if you move countries, try to find out if you are in a high-power distance or low-power distance community.

Understanding the cultural differences is essential in your path to academic success.

Rice Paddies and Math Tests

Hard work alone won’t bring you success, but meaningful work with a close relation between work investment and resulting merit will help you move forward.
When it comes to research and problem-solving, an example of how Renee discovers that the slope of the y-axis is infinity shows the benefit of chewing through a problem until you really understand it.

Stretching your concentration and doing deep work are essential in moving forward in your field of expertise, and for meaningful publications.

Marita’s Bargain

By sending children from poor low-income families to a very competitive school, the gap between these children and children from private schools becomes much smaller.

At my alma mater, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, engineering students have classes from 8am to 5pm daily, and are continuously stimulated to put great effort into their studies. The attitude I learned in Brussels has helped me through graduate school – I got used to start early and get studying, on a daily basis.

Gladwell’s Outliers is a book I enjoyed reading very much, as it was on the Georgia Tech list of recommendations. In 3 days, I worked my way through it, and this book is written very well such that the act of reading felt relaxing, but at the same time I was learning and gathering new insights – great combination indeed!  

Disclaimer: The links to the book in this post are affiliate links: if you buy the book through my recommendation, I get a small percentage that I can spend to buy more books.

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