Friday, August 12, 2011

How to Become Successful - My Review of Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell is a great story writer. I've enjoyed reading three of his books: The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. (I'll review the first two later on.) I like the way he delves into topics that intrigue many of us and comes up with an answer you wouldn't expect.

Success
Outliers is also such a book. In this book Gladwell wants to understand what success is. It's about men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary. They are 'outliers'. The book wants to show there is something wrong with the way we make sense of success. It's not (only) about personal qualities (passion, talent, hard work). Or what a successful person is like. It also depends on where and when a person grew up. In fact: "It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't." (p.19)

Succes, Time & System
Gladwell shows that our notion it is the best and the brightest who effortlessly rise to the top is much to simplistic. Success also has to do with what sociologists call "accumulative advantage". He uses the example and data of professional hockey players. Some start out a little bit better than the rest. But this small difference leads to a larger difference based on the amount of time they practiced. And older hockey players have more time than younger ones. They basically lived longer. The other point is: selecting players at a certain point in the year, doesn't help either. The players with birth dates near the cut-off date have more chance of getting through that younger ones. They lived longer and had more time to practice. This applies to school exams as well. Basically the system has a large role in deciding who is or isn't successful.

Success & Practice
In the next chapter Gladwell points to research which tried to but couldn't find "any "naturals"; people that floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time. Nor could they find any people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. (p.39) Practice is essential. How much practice is needed? "Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness." (p.41) "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good." (p.42) 10.000 hours is a lot of time. You need to be in a special situation to get the time to practice that much. You have to be lucky. You don't only have to have talent, you have to be given the opportunity. (p.76)

Success & Family
Another interesting point Gladwell makes is about IQ. Research shows that the relationship between success and IQ only works up to a point. "Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage." (p.79) So, other factors like imagination become more important. And practical intelligence. General and practical intelligence are orthogonal. "The presence of one doesn't imply the presence of the other." (p.101) We learn practical intelligence from our families. We get this or don't get this from the way we are raised. The way our life is structured. And what the context of our life is. E.g. is it surrounded with books?

Succes & Location
So, the first part of this book says: "when and where you are born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were make a significant difference in how well you do in the world." (p.175) The second part of the book is about if traditions and attitudes we inherit play the same role. And this seems to be the case. "Our ability to succeed at what we do is powerfully bound up with where we're from...". (p.209)

Success & Attitude
Success is also an attitude. "Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds." (p246)

Gladwell's own summary of the book:
... success follows a predictable course. 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 that have been given an opportunities - and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them. (p.267)
Questions about Success
BusinessWeek also ran a short review of the book with a couple of questions. The biggest question I have about the book is: How does this all apply in the ever-changing world we are in? Books like The Power of Pull and Macrowikinomics seem to imply that we can only learn fast enough in networks. As soon as we think we know something, our knowledge will be outdated. Outliers says you need to spend 10.000 hours on a subject to master it. How do these two approaches relate? Should we focus on core skills, like logic and writing? Any ideas?

Did you read this book? And did you like it? Please leave a comment and/or point to your review.
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