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What The Army Can Learn From Outliers

While looking for old Army manuals (a different post altogether) on a shelf in the Military Intelligence Library, I found a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. Apparently some courses at Fort Huachuca use this text, along with Gladwell’s other book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, to educate military intelligence students.

I have a simple criteria for recommending books, does it give me an insight I can use? Outliers doesn’t have much to do with military theory or counter-insurgency. Instead, Gladwell challenges conventional assumptions about why individuals succeed or fail. The US military shares this concern. The Army still employs industrial-age personnel methods instead of information-age strategies; it has much to learn from a forward-looking book like Outliers. On this level, the book is a success.

The book starts with a simple observation: in Canadian hockey, an inordinate number of top players are born between January and March. Canadian professional hockey players tend to be born in January. This seems strange, why are people born in January, February or March better hockey players than those born during the rest of the year? Gladwell explains the simple reason: in Canada, junior leagues cut off entry on January 1st. Individuals born in the early months of the year can start playing hockey earlier than individuals born later in the year. This extra year means bigger kids, which means better play, which means more opportunities, and so on and so on. The advantages accumulate. Canadian hockey unwittingly selects its future professionals too early, because of an arbitrary cut-off date.

In the Army, we use arbitrary selection criteria to weed out excellence as well. The majority of General officers come from the combat arms (infantry, armor, field artillery and aviation). Combat support branches such as the adjutant general corps, the quartermaster corps and the medical service corps simply do not have the same number General grade officers. Being selected for a combat arms branch dramatically improves your chance of both staying in the Army, and staying competitive for General’s rank. The movers and shakers of the Army--Powell, Petraeus, McChrystal, Odierno, Casey, Schoomaker--are all combat arms officers.

Assigning the branches of particular officers, then, is hugely important. Selecting individuals out of the combat arms eliminates them from the pool of potential generals. Instead of waiting until individuals prove themselves, the Army selects branches at the commissioning source. Before an officer even begins his career, he is essentially selected out of the competition for General grade. Commissioning branch is an capricious criteria, and it already starts shrinking the competitive pool for General officers--just like the way the month you are born breeds out potential NHL players in Canada.

Perhaps the biggest take away from Outliers is the popularization of the 10,000 hour rule. According to Gladwell, individuals reach peak performance only after they practice something for 10,000 hours. The Beatles practiced for 10,000 in Hamburg before they made their best albums. Mozart composed for about 10,000 hours before his first masterpieces. Most professional athletes truly peak when they have 10,000 hours of practice.

For the Army, my question is, what do we do to reach 10,000 hours? Should our 10,000 hours be reading history, studying case studies, practicing maneuvers, or planning operations? Should we specialize more or less to train leaders to excel at 10,000 hours?

I have my own ideas. Mainly, 10,000 hours should be time spent for each officer preparing to make tactical decisions. When the rubber hits the road, officers make decisions that win or lose wars. Military leaders should spend time in simulations, planning operations, and conducting wargaming. Soldiers should study terrain and read military history. Officers should practice leading men in combat.

Unfortunately, most officers do not come close to achieving 10,000 hours of experience in tactical decision making--myself included. We waste an inordinate amount of time on email, powerpoint and meetings. We also spend a great amount of their time conducting physical fitness. While the above are vital communication methods, they do not help officers make better decisions.  While physical fitness is an important skill, the Army should never forget that physical fitness is a component of excellence, not the end state.

This book didn't have just two good ideas, it had four. Next week I will describe how Malcolm Gladwell challenges the culture of success.

three comments

I hate the 10,000 hour rule, but I don’t deny it exists, because it puts such a high standard for achieving excellence.

Anyways, Gladwell has written an excellent book and I hope more people read it.


I agree, exposure breeds familiarity and familiarity gives way to confidence and competence. Since most people learn through practical exercise, I hope a good portion of those 10000 hours for officers is address potential scenarios.


Yeah Matt you would hope, but whether or not it happens… I was thinking about this some more. Probably the worlds best COIN expert is David Kilcullen, and I bet he has 10,000 of coin experience.