The impact of timing: why this financial crisis is our biggest break

Yesterday the Guardian posted an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story Of Success. I enjoy reading Gladwell’s work, even though I find it a bit rambling and missing some structure that woud improve impact. Maybe he means it that way?

The main part of the excerpt is about how “genius” can be tracked to practice/hard work, specifically narrowing to about 10,000 hours of practice being required. Good, interesting information with several fun studies and stories to back it up.

Another (more dispersed) piece of the excerpt is about timing. Here are the two points made about the “timing” of genius:

  • Take ice hockey in Canada: look at any team and you will find that a disproportionate number of players will have been born in the first three months of the year. This, it turns out, is because the cut-off date for children eligible for the nine-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old league and so on is January 1. Boys who are oldest and biggest at the beginning of the hockey season are inevitably the best. And so they get the most coaching and practice, and they get chosen for the all-star team, and so their advantage increases – on into the professional game.
  • …an astonishing 14 on the [Forbes 75 richest people in history] list are Americans born within nine years of each other… [snip, snip]… almost 20% of the names come from a single generation – born between 1831 and 1840 in a single country. The list includes industrialists and financiers who are still household names today: John Rockefeller, born in 1839 (the richest of the lot); Andrew Carnegie, 1835; Jay Gould, 1836; and JP Morgan, 1837.

    [snip, snip] It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade. What that list says is that it was absolutely critical, if you were going to take advantage of those opportunities, to be in your 20s when that transformation was happening.

    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 mindset was shaped by the old, pre-civil war ways.

Today, many of us are feeling limited by timining — specifically, why did this financial crisis have to hit now, just as we were hitting a stride. Re-read this sentence about why 20% of the 75 richest people in history come from one country and one period:

It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade.

While it is scary, this financial crisis is the breaking of our traditional economy. What is amazing is that this is happening on a global scale. It isn’t just about one country, but about one large global economy that is being broken. Now, it is our time to remake it.

Since many of you reading my blog are near my age, you will also be thinking about the next sentence that said you had to be in your 20s to take advantage of that. But read the next paragraph: This is your choice. Don’t be stuck in your mindset that was shaped by the old, pre-global economy, pre-financial correction days. You can look at our situation as Sequoia did in their famous RIP Good Times session for their entrepreneurs, or you can look at this as a new economy. How will it be remade? What do you know now that will be wrong for the future? What will be right?

When I read Titan, I thought I could learn a great deal from Mr. Rockefeller, but I never imagined I would be living in similar times as him. This excerpt is making me think differently on this, and I am feeling excited and ready for the challenge — even though you have to divide by 2 to get me to 20.

What is on my shirt today? A quote from Madeline Albright at a recent Wellesley dinner (see #3):

 Be confident
but not certain

I would add a third important point to Mr. Gladwell’s points: practice, timing, and support. Mr. Gladwell mentions this too in passing. For the hockey players, it is the ones that go the most coaching. In speaking of Mr. Gates and Mr. Joy it was access to computers (and specifically the people who gave them that access). Remember to support each other!