Sunday, September 16, 2012

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (review)

Do you believe in the idea of the self-made man or woman or do you acknowledge that we are all products of hundreds of influences, from our parents, teachers, and friends to innate abilities, the culture we're born to, and our ability to seize an opportunity?  Outliers: The Story of Success is a fascinating book by Malcolm Gladwell that explores how the world around us is just as important to our success as individual traits. 

I got introduced to this book at work.  My coworker had found the book somewhat depressing, in that her interpretation was that it argued that uber successful people - like a Steve Jobs, the Beatles, or Bill Gates - are rare anomalies in our culture, folks who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.  I've never looked kindly on the idea that success is a matter of luck, so I was intrigued.

Turns out the book takes a different approach - it argues that we incorrectly define success as the result of someone's individual traits and efforts while ignoring the many influences that shape that person. 

In an interview included at the back of the book, Gladwell says, "What I came to realize in writing Outliers is that we've been far too focused on the individual - on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world.  And that's the problem, because in order to understand outliers I think you have to look around them - at their culture, community, family, and generation.  We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should be looking at the forest." 

The argument is that no man or woman is an island - success isn't forged from a person's singular will and drive.  Instead, it is a complex, fluid combination of factors, some that you have control over, some that are a byproduct of your culture and time period.  "Ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage" drive our achievements, whether we want to acknowledge that or not.

The common yet incorrect notion that success is achieved by individual efforts alone
This was an intriguing idea to me.  I've always been curious about influences such the validity of birth order (I fit the description of an oldest child to a T), your personality profile (like Myers-Brigg, I am totally an extrovert), or even something as unscientific as astrology signs (again, perfect example of an Aries).  But I'd never really wanted to acknowledge how the sum of my life is a collaborative effort and any resulting success is owed to those factors.

Gladwell provides many examples of how a person's skills and experiences + their ability to recognize an opportunity can catapult them to astronomical good fortune.  What's important to recognize is that the outliers of any given time, like a Mark Zuckerberg, logged in many hours to get to where they're at.  Personality traits and culture opportunities aside, hard work is still at the heart of success.

Interestingly, 10,000 hours of time dedicated to honing a skill allows you to call yourself an expert.  The number is borrowed from computer programming, but it serves as a benchmark for any skill you need to develop.

The Beatles are a great example.  You could write a whole book about how each of the four members were really gifted musicians and how they spent their childhood developing their individual proficiencies.  But singularly gifted musicians do not a successful band make.
Gladwell points to their time spent in Hamburg, Germany where the band took a low-paying, lack luster gig where they played for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week.  They ended up playing live 1,200 times before their success blew up in Liverpool.  All of that practice resulted in fine tuning their style, memorizing all their music plus covers, and developing the stamina for perform live.  

The key here is that the Fab Four not only were a mixture of individual talents, but together they recognized the value of their performances in Hamburg.  Because they saw the benefit of hours on end of practicing, they could take advantage of it.

And that's the key takeaway from the book - you need to recognize your own strengths and when an opportunity comes along to develop them further.  

"It is not the brightest who succeed ... nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf.  It is, rather, a gift.  Outliers are those who have been given opportunities - and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them" (pg 267).

I think about my own life and find this to be true.  An average college professor teaches 6 courses a year.  When I lived in Cedar Falls, I taught 30 courses in two years - unintentionally cramming five years of teaching experience into less than half the normal time.  

Before that in college, I was a marching assistant in marching band, meaning that I taught drill and marching fundamentals to my section.  I was also in a greek organization and for two years I was responsible for the education of new members.  In high school, I helped with Sunday School, was a teaching assistant to a grade-school band, and spent a semester helping in a special ed classroom.  And hats off to all of the wonderful teachers I had along the way that encouraged me to grow and served as role models.

I joke that being a teacher is part of my personality.  While that's true to some extent - I like talking in front of people, I gravitate to leadership roles, and I'm a passionate learner - I've also amassed a huge volume of teaching experiences in a condensed time frame.  

And it wasn't by accident - I always knew I wanted to be a teacher in some form, so I was always looking for opportunities to try it out.  It doesn't mean I'm a better teacher than other folks my age, only that I'm a more practiced teacher.  I'm more experienced and comfortable because of the exposure I've had. 

I could outline the same thing when it comes to my love of writing and literature - how my parents swear I could read at an early age, the availability of books in our house, how my hometown had an excellent library, that I had fantastic English teachers at every step of the way, and how I was always writing creative stories as a kid.  

But it was me who decided to turn this love into a degree, strategically picked classes, joined professional organizations, took an editing job at my college newspaper, tutored in a writing center, volunteered to edit a department publication, and went to a ton of conferences to test out my own research. 

I hope I don't sound egotistical looking at my path to success, which is moderate in my own eyes given my 28 years.  Will I ever be famous as Bill Gates or Lady Gaga?  No, and that's ok.  We can't all be outliers (not to mention that kind of fame has a lot of downsides).  But we can take an inventory of our own strengths and be vigilant for opportunities to move us forward.

"It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, 'I did this, all by myself.'  Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience.  But they don't.  They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy.  Their success 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" (pg 285). 

I truly enjoyed reading this book - clearly from the length of my review, it was thought-provoking.  Not in a controversial sense, but in that it encouraged me to look at my life and acknowledge the many shaping influences to my achievements, whether I had control over them or not.  It also prompted me to revisit how I personally define success: in life, relationships, my jobs, our finances, ect.  Definitely something to mull over.

I would recommend this book to anyone, but particularly those in career-oriented fields, those at the bottom of the corporate ladder, and anyone who enjoy sociology or behavior sciences.  The book is written in a clear writing style, is well organized, and cites all of its research.  I'll definitely be checking out Gladwell's other books in the near future.

How do you define success in your life?  Can you see how particular moments, key people, and personal qualities have helped you get to where you are?

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