10,000 African Hours

The reason Appfrica Labs is structured in the way it is, is not only to empower East African software developers to create the solutions to their own problems, but to give them the one thing they so often never get…the time to do what they love to do in a productive capacity.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, he postulates that the people who are successful in anything often share the common trait that they started with an early advantage that their later competitors do not share. Whether it’s Jewish lawyers being marginalized into corporate services during a time when it wasn’t lucrative, only to find a quarterly of a century later that it was an unsurmountable lead into control the industry; or the football player who’s birthday came at just the right time to allow him to always be bigger than the rest of his playmates who were technically six months to a year behind him because of where their birthday’s fell even though they were all in the same grade. Or in a more contemporary example, the guy who’s family has a history the wine industry discovers he has the added charisma, natural charm and savvy to take that business and transform it into a smashing success in a new area, the web. (Gary Vaynerchuck, here’s looking at you, kid.)

Whatever the case, Gladwell isn’t saying people have ‘unfair advantages’ that make them successful (though sometimes that is the case, it’s called nepotism), rather, he’s suggesting that success can be always be broken down to the outlying trait + a few timely circumstances. In a way it’s a lot of research into the idioms, “the only luck we have is the luck we create for ourselves” or “right place right time”.

In the case of software developers he gives the example of Bill Gates who he argues had an incredible advantage over the entire industry, having unfettered access to advanced computing technology in a time where he was literally among the few thousand people on the planet who did — at an age where he had only a handful of peers with the same access.

According to Gladwell, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice at something to be truly good at something, often beyond the capacity of anyone who doesn’t yet have the same amount of experience. The wikipedia page for Outliers explains it this way…

A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the “10,000-Hour Rule”. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles’ musical talents and Gates’ computer savvy as examples.[3] The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, “so by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.’”[3] Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it. In Outliers, Gladwell interviews Gates, who says that unique access to a computer at a time when they were not commonplace helped him succeed. Without that access, Gladwell states that Gates would still be “a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional”, but that he might not be worth US$50 billion.[3] Gladwell explains that reaching the 10,000-Hour Rule, which he considers the key to success in any field, is simply a matter of practicing a specific task that can be accomplished with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years. He also notes that he himself took exactly 10 years to meet the 10,000-Hour Rule, during his brief tenure at The American Spectator and his more recent job at The Washington Post.[2]

So, it’s important to consider this when it comes to designing educating systems in Africa. In the U.S. I had a lot of extracurricular activities. I programmed, I wrote, I read, I drew, I had free time (and the resources) to pursue whatever it is I desired. All of these things and more contribute directly to all the things I do now (running a software company, writing, design, etc.) In markets where childhood is spent collecting water for 5 to 10 hours a day, taking care of siblings and studying in an authoritarian education system that discourages free thought, it becomes obvious quickly that there are going to be some differences in the way people think, work and find success.

The reason for Appfrica offering being accessible 24-hours, paid with internet and servers is to give the people I work with an opportunity to catch up. They’re already good, brilliant even, but with out the freedom to ‘play’ and work with the skills they want want to pursue as a career (in this case programming) they will always be at a disadvantage. They need those hours.

I run my business this way, but I’d also run a school in a similar way. You want to fix education in Africa and elsewhere, figure out ways to give people ‘time’ to explore.

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About the author: Jonathan Gosier is a UI designer, software developer and writer. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a TED Fellow.
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