Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Relationships

Outliers in the Realm of Relationship

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers, he writes eloquently about those individuals who have achieved an extremely high level of success and accomplishment in their chosen fields of interest. Outliers are those people whose achievements fall well beyond the range of normal experience. 

His examples are of those who have made the very most of their potential. He points out that there were a number of critical factors in their ability to accomplish what they did, among them being what he referred to as the “ten thousand hours” of practice that enabled them to master their chosen field. He used the ten thousand hour figure literally, not metaphorically.  Outliers can exist in any field including the arts, sports, business, or entertainment. Although extensive practice is essential to the process of becoming an outlier, there must, of course be a strong innate interest and potential present on the part of the individual in order to fuel their passion for success. It’s safe to say, however, that most of us use far less of our capacity and that most of our potential for the majority of us remains abundant and largely untapped. Estimates of the percentage of our potential that most of us utilize ranges somewhere between 10% to 20%.

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Gladwell claims “achievement is talent plus preparation.” Psychological studies of those that are deemed gifted reveal that innate talent plays a smaller role in the process of their development than does preparation and practice. What appears to set outliers apart from the general population, is not their innate talent and ability, but the intensity of their motivation that pushes them to the heights they attain. There is a degree of self-discipline and commitment present in them that compels them to immerse themselves in the process. They commit themselves to their journey with intense passion and dogged determination.

Gladwell illustrates his point by describing the early phase of the career of the Beatles, when they played in clubs in Hamburg, Germany several nights a week until 2:00AM, performing 270 nights in eighteen months. By 1964, the year they were finally recognized as a huge phenomenon, they had performed live over twelve hundred times, more than the amount of time that the average band spends performing in their entire career!

The researcher Anchers Erickson conducted a study of violinists and pianists in which he concluded that the ones with the highest levels of achievement are not those with the greatest talent, but rather are those who logged the greatest number of hours of practice. They practiced their instrument for an average of ten thousand hours over a period of ten years. Erickson concluded that those at the top of their fields don’t just work harder than everyone else; they work much, much harder!

Another study was conducted by Daniel Levitin who did a survey of the research of high achievers in the performing arts, athletics including baseball, soccer, ice-skating, chess players, business, and even mastermind criminals. He also found that the magic number in all cases was 10,000 hours. Each study confirmed his conclusion in regard to what it is that is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert.

The conclusion being that it takes the brain a great amount of time and many thousands of repetitions to realize true mastery. Practice isn’t the only thing you do that makes you good at what you do, but it’s the most important thing.

Gladwell does not speak in his book about couples that have a deep desire to share a mutually fulfilling, loving, co-creative partnership, but the same rules apply to them. If we define success in a more expanded way, not just money, status, power and fame, but in the depth of loving relationships, there are many couples that are clearly outliers and they got there the same way other outliers did. The very same characteristics that determine success in other fields apply to highly successful couples as well. Just as outliers are men and women who are exceptionally successful in their chosen fields, highly co-creative couples achieve high levels of excellence in their relationship. Like other highly accomplished outliers, couples that are driven by a passion to achieve the richness of a life of shared love, trust, and open-heartedness are rewarded for their efforts.

In our experience, my husband Charlie and I have come to similar conclusions in our observations of those couples that have achieved exceptionally high levels of fulfillment in their relationships. They too, are possessed by a strong desire and motivation and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary and to prioritize their relationship in order to accomplish this. As most of these couples have discovered, support is an essential aspect of this process. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to create an optimal relationship. No one has ever mastered any chosen endeavor without support.

What they have also discovered is that the process of mastering the art of creating exceptional relationships requires more patience and perseverance than they expected it would. In a culture in which most of us are accustomed to immediate gratification, the challenge of spending years or decades cultivating relational skills can be a daunting one. Fortunately, the benefits that are inherent in making the required effort, however, begin to show up early in the process and we don’t have to wait until all 10,000 hours have been put in to reap them.

Some of the skills possessed by the relationship “experts” that we encountered in the research that we did for our second for book, Secrets of Great Marriages, included learned and practiced multiple skills in the process of doing their homework, included the development of effective conflict management, using the relationship as a means of healing past emotional wounds, effective communication, non-reactive listening, and using the relationship as a means cultivating personal inner strengths.

It is in integrating one’s heart and soul into the practice of relationship building over time that confidence and expertise become more fully developed. Just as high levels of success in athletics, creative expression, business, and performing arts are available to even those who consider ourselves “ordinary people”, the attainment of exulted heights in our romantic partnership is also available to us. And the payoffs to the latter are often more than we ever imagined them to be.

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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