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How to "unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't"

  • Jan 6, 2009
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+5
In reviews of Malcolm Gladwell's previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, I express an opinion that Gladwell offers an insight that others have previously expressed and then requires 300+ pages to discuss it. His key points in both books could have been made in an article. Gladwell's "tipping point"(2002), for example, is essentially the same as Michael Kami's "trigger point" (1988) and Andrew Gove "inflection point" (1996). (Gladwell does acknowledge the importance of an article, "Broken Windows," co-authored by James Wilson and George Kelling for The Atlantic Monthly in 1982). When I began to read Outliers, therefore, I feared that Gladwell would once again offer a thoughtful but verbose examination of a by-now familiar insight: success requires more than extraordinary talent.

That said, Outliers is (in my opinion) his most significant and most valuable book thus far. As the Epilogue clearly indicates, this is also his most personal book. In it, Gladwell demonstrates superior storyteller skills as he discusses several quite different situations that demonstrate that "the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are...[Those who succeed] owe something to parentage and patronage. [They] may look like they did all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot...It's not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are [begin italics] from [end italics] that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't."

Gladwell provides many different versions of "the story of success" involving those who demonstrate what sociologists call "accumulative advantage." For example, in any youth sports competition (especially hockey) that groups players according to the calendar year of birth, those who are born in January, February, or March are more likely to be bigger, better coordinated, and more talented because of "the phenomenon of relative age." They will play more often, receive more individual attention, and be selected to play on better teams because they were born closest to the cut-off date. Their success follows a predictable course. "Outliers are those who have been given opportunities - and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them." Clearly, Gladwell agrees with Geoff Colvin that "talent is overrated." As does Colvin, he cites The 10,000-Hour Rule and suggests that "once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, [begin italics] much [end italics] harder."

John Maxwell makes the same point in Talent Is Never Enough. If it were, "then the most effective and influential people would always be the most talented ones but that is often not the case...Clearly talent isn't everything." That said, he hastens to add, talent is worthy of our admiration and must be perceived in the proper perspective. Maxwell's key point is that all of us have a choice, actually several choices, and can determine to what extent (if any) we take full advantage of the talents we have, such as they are. "If you do, you will add value to yourself, add value to others, and accomplish much more than you dreamed was possible." Gladwell agrees but would presumably stress, also, the importance of others (family members, teachers, coaches, clergy, patrons, and mentors) to being able to commit 10,000 hours, "the magic number of greatness," to (Colvin's term) "deliberate practice." The success of the various outliers whom Gladwell discusses is not exceptional or mysterious. "It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all."

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Robert Morris ()
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Professionally, I am an independent management consultant who specializes in accelerated executive development and breakthrough high-impact organizational performance. I also review mostly business books … more
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Amazon Best of the Month, November 2008: Now that he's gotten us talking about the viral life of ideas and the power of gut reactions, Malcolm Gladwell poses a more provocative question inOutliers: why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? Challenging our cherished belief of the "self-made man," he makes the democratic assertion that superstars don't arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: "they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky."

Outlierscan be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendents of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots' culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math. But there's more to it than that. Throughout all of these examples--and in more that delve into the social benefits of lighter skin color, and the ...
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Details

ISBN-10: 0316017922
ISBN-13: 978-0316017923
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Genre: Business & Investing, Health, Mind & Body, Nonfiction
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
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