Monday, January 26, 2009

Outliers: Success is What You Make of It

Do you remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation [sic]? These were just two of a number of PBS series in the 1970s and 1980s that attempted to address major topics by gathering various pieces of information (sometimes seemingly unrelated) and identifying or synthesizing themes that seemed to make sense of all that data. In broad, sweeping strokes these intelligent men attempted to provide coherence and sense to an incoherent, senseless world.

I was reminded of these series when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. You will remember Gladwell as the author of two previous books—The Tipping Point (which I really liked) and Blink (which I never really understood). Gladwell is a synthesizer like Sagan and Clark. His works are cross-disciplinary discourses that (as in the present volume) draw on history, sociology, psychology, linguistics and literature. In this book, Gladwell attacks the idea of the “self-made man” (or woman). The basic premise of Outliers is that geniuses are made not born. They are created by their families, schools and society.

Take Bill Gates as an example (as Gladwell does). Gates happened to come along when several currents combined to give a boost to his natural abilities. He was a student at a well-to-do school in 1968 that provided students access not just to a computer but a terminal connected to a mainframe computer. As a teenager, he was given the opportunity to program for some startup software companies and often would sneak out of his parents’ home to work all night programming at the University of Washington which was within walking distance. His school even let him work programming full-time on a “study project” for the Bonneville Power Station in his senior year.

The author says that ten thousand hours of practice in a certain area is “the magic number of greatness” in that discipline. He applies this to Mozart, the Beatles, and . . . Bill Gates. By the time Gates graduated from high school, he had more than ten thousand hours writing code. Who else had that kind of opportunity (and took advantage of it)?

Gladwell also points out the importance of timing. Born in 1955, Gates was too young to be pulled into a career track at stodgy IBM and old enough to be able to take advantage of the personal computer revolution in the mid-70s. Steve Jobs was also born in 1955.

Gladwell talks about hockey players, Asian rice farmers, Jewish New York corporate lawyers, geniuses, Appalachian “rednecks” as well as his mother’s ancestors who benefited from the peculiar status of “coloreds” in Jamaica. His reach is sweeping and specific. His writing is interesting and instructive.

Although he states that “successful people don’t rise from nothing” and “successful people are products of history and community, opportunity and legacy,” Gladwell shows that success is based on more than just intelligence and being in the right place at the right time. A successful individual is one who takes advantage of his or her opportunities. Circumstances empower but they often must be overcome as well. He notes, “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” So perhaps successful people aren’t self-made, but they use the materials given to them very effectively.

This book is worth reading. You may find points of disagreement, but you will come away with a new perspective on success and how we can encourage it. It is available at

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