Well Malcolm Gladwell's done it again. Produced yet another book that not only changes the way you look at the world but does it in such an entertaining way that the book nearly reads like a novel or a screenplay and leaves you wanting more.
If you've read The Tipping Point or Blink then you'd probably expect another fantastic performance from the man who explained how epidemics occur and why some things spread like fire through society and some fizzle out before they've had a chance to even get a flame. You might wonder, as I did, whether a third book could be as good--I mean hadn't he used up all the genius juice on the first two?
I assure you this one is just as amazing. While tackling a completely different topic Outliers demonstrates again Gladwell's wonderful narrative style which innervates each case study he sites and convinces you that he must, make that MUST be right.
Andrew and I listened to the audiobook together in the evenings in four segments read by the author and the premise of the book is this: It is our tradition to think that success is based on merit. If someone has reached the top of their field whether it be in business, the arts, science or sports we attribute their achievements to extraordinary ability. They're smarter or more creative or they just had that "something" that led them to do amazing things. It's what we'd call the legend of the Self-Made Man.
Gladwell, however, says pretty convincingly that there's no such thing. The Self-Made Man is a myth and in fact success is quite formulaic. If you want to master your field--whatever field that may be--it requires 10,000 hours of disciplined labor and practice. Those who find success are able to acquire those 10,000 early on in their careers and at just the right moment in history for those 10,000 hours to be of use.
Sound hard to stomach? Well Gladwell lays down all sorts of case studies including the Beatles, Mozart, Bill Gates, professional hockey players, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 19th century tycoons and Manhattan attorneys to prove his point and I have to admit he's got me convinced.
While we may think that the most successful people were born with some genetic fluke of greatness that brought the planets into alignment Gladwell in fact says it's the other way around: that those who are the most successful were just smart enough and that the planets aligned for them. They were just lucky.
While this may sound disheartening because it's comforting to believe that one can, by sheer willpower, strength of character, hard work and ability achieve anything (how many times is the phrase "You've just got to believe in yourself" marketed to us?) I actually find his theories to be quite the opposite. I think they give hope to those seeking success because it means that those at the top of the ladder aren't there because they were the smartest or the brightest or the handsomest or the most perfect or the most talented and therefore the only ones who will reach the summit, they're there because fate went their way and they had prepared themselves enough and worked hard enough so that when the opportunities came they were ready.
If you're just smart enough, just talented enough and are willing to put in the work necessary to achieve those magic 10,000 hours of training you have a good shot at success.
However, while putting in the work is something people can control there are plenty of other things they can't. You can't control when you are born any more than you can control the place or the situation into which you were born. While Outliers downplays the effects of Nature on genius and success it effectively shows how profoundly Nurture controls our destinies.
For example, if Bill Gates hadn't been born within a certain five-year period into circumstances where he miraculously had access to a free time-share computer as early as in elementary school his interests would never have come to fruition. The story is truly amazing and it convinces you that it's not so much that Bill Gates is a one-in-a-billion persona but the circumstances that combined to produce Bill Gates are one-in-a-billion. Or fifty billion if you prefer.
It sure makes you think differently about how the world works.
After listening to Gladwell's thoughts I've looked around at circumstances in my own life and seen the same principles at work. In Alaska, for example, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in the late 1960s and the Trans-Alaska Pipe Line jump-started the state. Before the 1970s Alasak was sparsely populated (though some would say it still is) and those who built up the state through that tremendous period of growth were all of a certain age and of a certain generation. If you caught the 1970s just right you were in a position to play a part in what was happening to Alaska.
Looking around town at all the major businesses you notice the trend in age--if you caught the wave just right it carried you to the top of your profession--a few years too late and you hit the economic downturn of the 80s, too early and there wasn't the money to finance the growth in the 60s.
Or even on a more personal level I look at our family's experience. My husband graduated from the University of North Dakota--hardly what you'd call Ivy League--and neither of us is what you'd call a genius. However, he was certainly smart enough to graduate from law school and was smart enough that he was able to get a clerkship after law school. Because of the clerkship he landed a good job with a law firm which in turn led to an even better corporate job that has been wonderful for him and our family. One thing has led to another until he's doing things that someone his age typically wouldn't have access to.
Not only is the whole concept of genius is completely overrated--so much of success is how fate plays out and working hard enough to be prepared for the opportunities when they come--it doesn't apply only to those at the uppermost part of the economic heavens, the principles Outliers describes can be seen all through society.
Interesting stuff. What's Gladwell going to think of next? You think he'd let me take him out to lunch for an interview? Maybe fate will fall my way.
The Motherhood is hosting a forum where you can share ideas for ways to connect with your kids in the kitchen. I've got a story up over there and commenters will be entered to win prizes so check it out!
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