A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

The Message I Got from Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’: Don’t Give Up

I just finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers:  The Story of Success, which is really the story of extraordinary success—the kind that lies outside the bell curve, the kind achieved by Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, or the Beatles.

I had been meaning to listen to Outliers for a while now because I really enjoyed Gladwell’s other books, Blink and Tipping Point. Gladwell has a gift for storytelling. He is one of the few non-fiction authors I know of who can create a feeling of suspense usually only experienced with fiction. (Jon Krakauer is another example.)

Gladwell’s books are largely about connecting patterns in human behavior (patterns we don’t always recognize) in an attempt to find correlations that expand our understanding of the world. He enjoys questioning the basic assumptions we make about ourselves and about others, and challenging us to see things differently. He doesn’t always present enough evidence to prove his hypotheses, but he lets the fieldwork of other psychologists and social scientists lead him closer to answering some of the more bewildering psychosocial questions of our day.

As I listened to Outliers, I found myself both fascinated and slightly offended. He is, after all, openly attacking the American idea of rugged individualism, the idea of a self-made man—the protagonist of the classic rags to riches story. Instead of an innate gift, he argues, extraordinary success is almost always the result of an equally extraordinary opportunity made available to the achiever.

Now, the achiever still must work hard and be prepared to seize upon the opportunity. Chance, as Louis Pasteur observed, does tend to favor the prepared mind. But, as Gladwell argues, extraordinary success can often be traced to a series of remarkable opportunities that resulted from somewhat random circumstances, like date and place of birth, parenting practices, family connections, socio-economic status, laws of the land, cultural norms and traditions, etc. The achievers are often unaware that the opportunities afforded to them could lead on to greatness. They seize upon a relatively small opportunity, such as the chance to practice playing music seven days a week for eight or more hours a day (as the Beatles did in Hamburg, Germany) and their hard work (literally thousands and thousands of hours of practice) pays off big.

That’s not to say choices, hard work, and innate talent don’t have prominent roles in success—Gladwell admits they do—but he wants us to see that external circumstances also play an important, if not equal, role. In other words, we are just as much products of our environment as we are our nature. As a result, the brightest among us sometimes fail through a lack of opportunity rather than lack of talent. If we can understand how our environments sometimes thwart the most talented (or potentially talented), maybe we can enable more people to reach greater levels of success. We do have more control over our environment than we do our nature.

He offers as an example the statistical fact that a large number of great Canadian hockey players (around 40 percent) have birthdays in January, February and March. This has to do with the January 1st cutoff date for joining an age-class league, when a child is at least 8 years old. Coaches will observe the 8- or 9-year-olds who join the league and will begin making coaching decisions for the more talented players, often giving them special training sessions and more practice opportunities.

A child who misses the January 1st cutoff date but who is born during the earlier months may gain as much as 10 to 11 extra months of practicing and growing before joining the age-class league. Naturally, the older players born January through March tend to stand out as better players. Hockey playing, of course, does not have that great of an impact on quality of life, but what about when such random factors influence a child’s educational opportunities?

Gladwell offers similar examples throughout the book and makes a fairly compelling case for what some people might call “luck.” Bill Gates, he points out, had access to a mainframe computer in 1963 at age 13—something most college professors didn’t have at that time. Of course, the young Bill Gates had to be talented and industrious enough to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunity.

Ironically, none of Gladwell’s findings negate the idea of the self-made man. Instead, they seem to reinforce it. There are two common elements underlying all the extraordinary success stories he cites:  hard work and an almost tireless drive to figure things out. In other words, successful people don’t give up.

Gladwell (and the social scientists he cites) observe that great success is almost always associated with a “10,000 hour rule”—that is, to be great at something almost always requires about 10,000 hours of practice. This level of practice typically takes 7-10 years to achieve. It’s having the opportunity (as well as focus and drive) to put in your 10,000 hours that provides the extra leverage that can later lead on to extraordinary success.

People who are extraordinarily successful often had an opportunity to begin putting in their 10,000 practice hours at an earlier age, so that by the time they reached their twenties, they were able to seize upon other opportunities that led to more and more opportunities to do what they were good at. Again, they had to be willing to put forth a huge amount of effort.

After listening to Outliers, I saw more clearly how the “victimhood” mentality is so damning in life. Instead of practicing an art, the victim wastes time blaming metaphysical factors (things they generally cannot change) such as the circumstances of their birth, their cultural baggage, their parents, unjust laws, etc.

Ultimately, to be great at something (or even just really good) you need an intense resolve to not give up, to keep practicing at an art and figuring things out. Eventually, hard work and dedication will pay off on some level. Sometimes we just have to create our own opportunities, or be better prepared and more open to them when they do show up.

I just finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. It’s really the story of extraordinary success that lies outside the bell curve—the kind of success achieved by Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, or the Beatles.

I had been meaning to listen to Outliers for a while now because I really enjoyed Gladwell’s other books, Blink and Tipping Point. Gladwell has a gift for storytelling. He is one of the few non-fiction authors I know who can create a feeling of suspense usually only experienced with fiction. (Jon Krakauer is another example.)

Gladwell’s books are largely about connecting patterns in human behavior (patterns we don’t always see) in an attempt to expand our awareness of our world. He enjoys questioning the basic assumptions we make about ourselves and about others, and challenging us to see things differently. He doesn’t always present enough evidence to prove his hypotheses, but he lets the fieldwork of other psychologists and social scientists lead him closer to answering some of the more bewildering psychosocial questions of our day.

As I listened to Outliers, I found myself both fascinated and slightly offended. He is, after all, openly attacking the American idea of rugged individualism, the idea of a self-made man—the protagonist of the classic rags to riches story. Instead of an innate gift, he argues, extraordinary success is almost always the result of an equally extraordinary opportunity made available to the achiever.

Now, the achiever still must work hard and be prepared to seize upon the opportunity. Chance, as Louis Pasteur observed, does tend to favor the prepared mind. But, as Gladwell argues, extraordinary success can often be traced to a series of remarkable opportunities that resulted from somewhat random circumstances, like date and place of birth, parenting practices, socio-economic status, laws of the land, cultural norms and traditions. The achievers are often unaware that the opportunities afforded to them will lead on to greatness. They seize upon a relatively small opportunity, such as the chance to practice playing music seven days a week for eight or more hours a day (as the Beatles did in Hamburg, Germany) and their hard work (literally thousands and thousands of hours of practice) pays off big.

That’s not to say choices, hard work, and innate talent don’t have prominent roles in success—Gladwell admits they do—but he wants us to see that external circumstances also play an important, if not equal, role. In other words, we are just as much products of our environment as we are our nature. As a result, the brightest among us sometimes fail through a lack of opportunity rather than lack of talent. If we can understand how our environments sometimes thwart the most talented (or potentially talented), maybe we can enable more people to reach greater levels of success. We do have more control over our environment than we do our nature.

He offers as an example the statistical fact that a large number of great Canadian hockey players (around 40 percent) have birthdays in January, February and March. This has to do with the January 1st cutoff date for joining an age-class league, when a child is at least 8 years old. Coaches will observe the 8 or 9 year olds who join the league and will begin making coaching decisions for the more talented players, often giving them special training and more practice opportunities. A child who misses the January 1st cutoff date but who is born during the earlier months may gain as much as 10 to 11 extra months of practicing and growing before joining the age-class league. Naturally, the older players born January through March tend to stand out as better players. Hockey playing, of course, does not have that great of an impact on quality of life, but what about when such random factors influence a child’s educational opportunities?

Gladwell offers similar examples throughout the book and makes a compelling case for what some people might call “luck.” Bill Gates, he points out, had access to a mainframe computer in 1963 at age 13—something most college professors didn’t have at that time. Of course, the young Bill Gates had to be talented and industrious enough to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunity.

Ironically, none of Gladwell’s findings negate the idea of the self-made man. Instead, they seem to reinforce it. There are two common elements underlying all the extraordinary success stories he cites: hard work and an almost tireless drive to figure things out. In other words, successful people don’t give up.

Gladwell (and the social scientists he cites) observe that great success is almost always associated with a “10,000 hour rule”—that is, to be great at something almost always requires about 10,000 hours of practice. This level of practice typically takes 7-10 years to achieve. It’s having the opportunity (as well as focus and drive) to put in your 10,000 hours that provides the extra leverage that can later lead on to extraordinary success.

People who are extraordinarily successful often had an opportunity to begin putting in their 10,000 practice hours at an earlier age, so that by the time they reached the age of 20, they were able to seize upon other opportunities that led to more and more opportunities to do what they were good at. Again, they had to be willing to put forth a huge amount of effort.

After listening the Outliers, I saw more clearly how the “victimhood” mentality is so damning in life. Instead of practicing an art, the victim wastes time blaming metaphysical factors (things they generally cannot change) such as the circumstances of their birth, their cultural baggage, their parents, unjust laws, etc.

Ultimately, what you need to be great at something (or even just really good) is an intense resolve to not give up, to keep practicing at it and figuring things out. Eventually, hard work and dedication will pay off on some level. Sometimes we just have to create our own opportunities, or be better prepared and more open to them when they do show up.

Comments are closed.