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November 21, 2008

News & Opinion: What makes success?

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 5:01 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

For all of you who have eagerly awaited Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success since Dylan's announcement back in April, it's out! Outliers are the people who are above and beyond successful; this book is the story of what makes an outlier. Malcolm was tired of rock stardom and genius-dom (think Einstein and the White Stripes) written off as an unexplainable brilliance. Instead, outliers are savants; persistent people who studied and practiced extensively to achieve their success. Outliers is not without its share of naysayers. Some like the NYTimes criticized Outliers, saying it was too general, not well thought-out and based on on old information. Katie Couric asked Malcolm if his theories were too simple and merely a re-statement of common knowledge. Gladwell responded,
Sometimes. I don't think that's a bad thing. I think my role is, I'm trying to start conversations. I want to start from a simplistic place and I want to complexify that and take you on a journey. I am trying to make complicated ideas accessible.
There's nothing more simple or accessible than what our mothers, fathers, teachers and coaches told us: practice makes perfect and persistence is necessary. It's the people willing to go the extra mile that become rock stars and musicians. Take Bill Joy, who enabled your computer to communicate with the internet or Bill Gates or the Beatles. Most would consider these people to be iconic in their respective fields. Each one of them got to where they are with practice and persistence. Last year Malcolm presented Genius at the New Yorker Conference comparing the achievements of two men: Michael Ventris and Andrew Wiles. The notion we have of genius is that it's made up of obsession, isolation and insight. There, he introduced the 10,000 hour rule; that it takes about 10,000 hours (roughly 10 years) of intense study and practice to master any subject, practice, sport, what have you. This is true across the board. World-class athletes. Musicians. Writers. Bobby Fischer took nine years but, well that's close enough. Even Malcolm, believes he hit sweet spot in journalistic writing 10 years after he started. If Malcolm's theories hold true, it could be argued that with the Japanese spending 250 days a year in school and American children spending 185, that time deficit could be the very reason for our nation's deficit in education. A contention point, and soft spot for most everyone, would be Malcolm's suggestion that success is also built on influences outside our control, like what year we were born or what happened around the time of our 20th birthday. Which is why Salon critiqued,
Gladwell's "Outliers" model -- the idea that success is shaped by environment, not genetics -- has two additional problems. First, it is insufficiently predictive...This leads us to the second problem with Gladwell's model: It is every bit as deterministic as the "genius" model.
Whatever you take away, here's what Malcolm hoped we'd take away:
My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It's because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances--and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds--and how many of us succeed--than we think. That's an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.
Let me leave you with these links. Malcolm's site, where you can find three excerpts and an interview with Malcolm. The Guardian conducted a more in-depth interview with Malcolm. Salon's coverage and Fast Company's. And if that's not enough, The LATimes Jacket Copy shared more coverage.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.