Just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s (Tipping Point, Blink) excellent book ‘Outliers’. The book looks to find out why some people achieve so much more than others. What determines which individuals create works and make discoveries that change our lives? What is the secret of their success?
Gladwell argues that, when we try to understand success, whether in the creative industries, arts, science or business, we normally start with the wrong question. We ask ‘what is this person like?’ when we should really be asking ‘where are they from’? The real secret of success turns out to be surprisingly simple, and it hinges on a few crucial twists in people’s life stories – on the culture they grow up in and the way they spend their time.
The Matthew Effect
Gladwell first shows that there are trends in looking at successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Gladwell also uses hockey and soccer as an example, noting that a disproportionate amount of professionals are born within days, weeks, or months of the cut-off age. Why might this make a difference? When these players first start playing sports as early as the age of 7 or 8 (or in some cases earlier), being born closer to the cut-off date could have an astronomical difference. These several months of advantage will not only give you a physical advantage, but a mental one as well. Those closer to the cut-off date are older, have had the benefits of added months of practice, may be more physically imposing, intellectually mature, and have the bonus of developed hand-eye coordination.
The advantages do not stop there. These older athletes tend to be more successful on the proverbial field, court, or arena, which condones praise, more teaching, coaching, and attention. These become the athletes who are picked for all-star teams and get to sharpen their skills against better competition, whose coaches polish and cultivate them, and who have the added advantage of a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” They are treated as stars, and are well aware that they stand out. They have become anointed at an early age, and this success reverberates, placing them on a fast track to success. While these athletes are being groomed for the athletic Promised Land, others who have not developed or lack the physical or mental maturity are left on the sidelines.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
Gladwell shows how people that are really successful in their chosen field have also built up 10,000 hours of practice in it. An example of this are The Beatles, who before they had their first hit had spent their early years as a group playing the strip clubs of Hamburg. They played eight hours a day and had done an estimated 1200 times which meant that by the time they had their ‘overnight success’ they had performed over 10,000 hours. Other examples Gladwell sites include Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Ah I can hear you cry, but what about Mozart. True Mozart did compose when he was very young but these works were but no means his finest and his great works did not start until he was in his 20’s.
The Trouble With Creative Geniuses
Gladwell gives examples of why it can actually be a handicap to success to be a genius. Geniuses (IQ over 140) can often lack what is called practical intelligence. Practical intelligence is knowing what to say, to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect. The secret of success is to be clever enough but not too clever. Einstein had an IQ of 130 and it has been shown that a scientist with an IQ of 130 is as likely to win a Nobel prize as someone with 190. IQ is a measure, to some degree, of innate ability, but social savvy is knowledge. It’s a set of skills that have to be learned. Knowledge of a boys IQ is of little help if you are in a class of clever boys.
Sense of Entitlement
Gladwell also argues that children from a middle-class background have an edge over children from poorer backgrounds because of what he calls ‘concerned cultivation’. The middle-class parenting style of ‘concerned cultivation’ is an attempt to actively foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills. Poor parents tend to follow, by contrast, a strategy of ‘accomplishment of natural growth’. They see their responsibility to care or their children but to let them grow and develop on their own. Where this makes a real difference is that it gives the middle-class children a sense of entitlement, they act as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings. The poorer children didn’t learn how to get their way or how to ‘customise’ whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes.
The Importance of Being Jewish
Gladwell gives a fascinating insight into why so many Jewish lawyers became so successful. When many of them came into law (1950’s) they faced prejudice and could only work for the firms who would do litigation and hostile takeovers, work at that time that the posher non-Jewish firms refused to do because it was considered a little bit underhand and dirty. Even getting through law school for Jews was a struggle as most came from immigrant parents who had to really work hard to put their children through university. When the economic climate changed it was not only that the Jewish lawyers were smarter lawyers than anyone else, it was that they had a skill they had been working on for years that was suddenly very valuable.
The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work
Also most of these now successful Jewish lawyers, doctors and accountants saw their parents work in very tough industries such as the garment industry. Anyone that has seen the garment industry close up knows that it is explicitly entrepreneurial and it also contains the three elements that makes work meaningful – autonomy, complexity and a connection between reward and effort. Work that fufills those criteria is meaningful and people will work much harder in meaningful careers. Their world – their culture, generation and family history – gave them the greatest of opportunities.
I personally have been impressed by the rise of China in recent years in my five trips to that increadible country. One question I keep asking is what gives the Chinese their industrious nature? The secret, as Gladwell points out, is in the rice paddies. First let me contrast the Chinese industriousness to the more laid back attitude of those from Meditteranean countries. Gladwell argues that this industriousness is deep within the genes. In Meditteranean countries the agricultural year consists of being very busy in Spring and Autumn, taking it easy in the Summer and pretty much hibernating in the Winter. Compare this to China’s main agricultral crop, rice. A rice paddie needs daily and year round care with planting, mending the walls, fertilising and harvesting by hand. This is the reason why the Chinese have the expression ‘no one who rises before dawn three hundred and sixy days a year fails to make his family rich’. Speaking personally I can identify with this. As a European my natural inclination in the Summer is to take it easier while the Winter the idea of hibernating is very comforting.
Everything we learn in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest of most creatively gifted who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
My main criticism of the book is that no where does it look to define what ‘success’ is. Gladwell’s examples of success are all financial. It would have been nice to look at those who have achieved both creative and economic success. Also each of the books chapters are very interesting but I wish he had given us a concluding chapter where he brought all the strands together. Apart from that a very interesting read which I would recommend to those interested in this field.