Monday, November 14, 2016

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Prior to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, I had seen it referenced by others in relation to the so-called “10,000-hour rule.” This is the concept that mastery of a complex skill takes about 10,000 hours of practice. This idea is not original to Gladwell, but his book popularized the concept.

That is not at all the point of Outliers. Instead, Gladwell takes on myths of success, especially the myths of genius and the self-made man. Certainly people of extraordinary achievement are intelligent and hard-working, but Gladwell shows that they also the beneficiaries of opportunities provided by their culture, sometimes very unique opportunities.

To start, Gladwell tackles our enchantment with intelligence (or talent). He describes research that shows that intelligence matters very little after it reaches some threshold. Once someone has enough intelligence to succeed at something, whether he succeeds for the degree of his achievement is not determined by intelligence. Other things are more important.

One of those other things is the amount of work someone puts into improving a skill (going back to the 10,000-hour rule). Even for a very motivated person, it is hard to put 10,000 hours into learning and improving any complex skill, especially while relatively young. Drawing from many cases (including Bill Gates and Mozart), high-achievers were enabled by opportunities provided by the culture (family, economic situation, law, technological development, etc.). In addition, they gained their mastery at a time when those abilities were highly valued (another cultural contribution that is often time-limited).

After establishing this foundation, Gladwell looks at other aspects of culture and success. Culture can contribute to success and hinder it. Cultures are persistent, yet some have found ways, at least in certain contexts, of overcoming limits to opportunities and opening the doors to success.

Culture matters. We like stories of the lone genius or plucky rag-to-riches go-getter. Without discounting their talent or effort, Gladwell shows that these stories typically veil the many opportunities and lucky breaks that were available to these successful people that very often were not available to others.

The implication is that we rely on luck to produced highly successful people, and luck doesn’t strike often. We could create cultures that provide more opportunities for more people. There are plenty of smart-enough people. Many of them are willing to work hard at something meaningful (itself something that is a cultural heritage). We might have many more successful people, and even more of those extraordinary performers, if we got serious about providing opportunities for everyone.

Malcolm Gladwell also wrote

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Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.