Monday, December 8, 2008

How To Be World Class

A VP of one of the big EDA vendors once asked Jason, one of Verilab's founders, "How on earth does Verilab keep managing to consistently get such high grade engineers?" At the time, I'm sure we clucked and strutted and gave some deep theories. But in reality, our basic reply was, "Dunno. We just know 'em when we see 'em." Spotting talent is a bit like taking photographs. Just because you're good at it doesn't mean you're good at explaining to others how to do it. However, Malcolm Gladwell, whose book "Outliers" I've just finished, has something to offer on the latter. Here, in a nutshell, is what he says (he's a lot better at this than I am though, so don't worry about me spoiling things - you should still read the book).

To become world class you should:
  1. Have some innate talent. This is, however, the least difficult part. Gladwell argues that you only need talent at or above a minimum level (e.g. an IQ of 110), and that's good enough. There is little or no correlation between world classness and innate talent *above* that minimum level.
  2. Be lucky in your surrounding circumstances so that you get the opportunity to work hard on "meaningful work".
  3. Actually work hard. Specifically, accumulate about 10,000 hours of practice.
In fact Gladwell's thesis really focuses on those first two points (the third point is not new - see He goes to some lengths to argue that innate talent, especially once you've reached some minimum level, is highly unimportant. Conversely, he stresses that the surrounding circumstances are crucial. An example of the latter is top class Canadian ice hockey players. Apparently they are heavily biased towards people born in the earlier part of each year. Read the book to find out the details of why, but basically it's because kids born in January, February or March are more likely to get the opportunity to put in the 10,000 hours of practice that will make them great.
As I say, worth a read. But I'll leave you with a thought about how to interpret it all for your own benefit.

First, you almost certainly have the required level of talent. If you're reading blogs about EDA, or consulting; if you're interested in high tech; you're smart enough. Let's move on.

Second, you can't really know if your surrounding circumstances are bad enough to kill off your chances. How bad things seem can as often be a function of your attitude to life in general - glass half full or half empty. And I'm pretty sure that for the vast majority of my huge audience of readers it would be true to say that greatness has arisen from surrounding circumstances far worse than yours. So, no excuses here either.
Which leaves only the final point. The 10,000 hours. This is where the focus should be. A modern phrase is, "Work smarter, not harder." Well, apparently not. Work smarter *and* harder. OK, so, remember to send me a ticket when you win your Nobel Prize.


  1. @Santa,
    Bonjour Santa. But shouldn't you be making lists, checking them twice, and stuff? Checking. Verification. Checking. Geddit?

  2. Guten Tag Tommy. I'm not sure why you might think Santa is Francais but I personally find dynamic arrays much more fun than lists for verifying which presents to send. Or maybe you've found the bug in that my ISP provider's DNS server has such a big pool of IP addresses to deal with that its conversion from numeric to symbolic is all over the map, both figuratively and literally. Anyway, Santa's elves wish you all the best for Christmas and 2009.