Author: Malcolm Gladwell


Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t

Gladwell continues to intrigue me with his unconventional research, presentation and writing.  I’ve enjoyed both of his other books, The Tipping Point and Blink and so I fully expected another enjoyable book.  I can happily say he delivered yet again as I definitely enjoyed his latest book, Outliers as well.  Outliers is a book not unlike his others, where he presents a collection of findings and stories that uncover a truth that is not your expected outcome.

There are two basic messages that Gladwell outlines in the first half and second half of the book.  First, there are those who have surprising success not by their skills, work ethic and own abilities, but by circumstances, advantages and inheritances from there life and environment that contribute to those individuals’ success.  The notion behind this is explained with various examples of how our environment shapes our lives and behaviors to a large degree as well. One example used is how professional hockey has ended up with a high statistical number of players born very early in year and extremely few players born near the end of the year.  This is caused by how age categories are split from hockey players at young ages when developing their skills.  Those who who born early in year are older and statistically have more months of practice by the cut off point for each age group.  This gives them a serious advantage from an early age and it is these players that get coached the most, move up the leagues and become the superstars more than the players born near the end of the year.  These age categories result in similar distributions in other sports and in other countries where different birthdates and splits are used.  They all seem to have a bias or advantage based on factors outside the skill of the players.

The second message is how an individual’s intended contribution is largely a factor of the time required to become an expert in some area.  He reveals that this time frame is around 10000 hours of practice in order to become an expert.  Those who are considered to be more skilled or even genius are really just evidence of a person who has put in more time to become a 10000 hour based expert sooner than others.   So while it is typically believed that there is a huge difference between very smart or talented students over average, his findings show that this is really just a case of practice.  Students who are initially worse at a skill or expected to be worse develop just as well as the next student who seems to impress others and appears to be a smarter or quicker student.  This implies that anyone, regardless of circumstance can become an expert if the time to practice is applied.

Aligning Expert with Circumstance

Gladwell takes things even further then at examining the 10000 hour expert level.  Not everyone who becomes an expert in something by practice also has the circumstances contributing to them to help them find success.  Therefore, there is a required alignment of expert level practice and contributors from one’s environment that must both occur to truly bring someone into the highest success levels.  The examples in the book not only highlight some of the evidence for these findings but also make evident the problems that many of our societal systems impose limitations on people or put unintended hardships for success in place.  Overcoming this requires that our systems look not at categorizing or classifying people early on, but instead provide equal opportunities for those who do put in expert levels of practice

In finishing this book, you will have a very different idea of what makes a person extraordinary.  It’s not their intelligence or skills as much as it is the circumstances and environment that contributes or triggers them to develop key abilities.  The date a person is born, the social atmosphere one learns their work ethic from or even the attitude one develops from overcoming hardship are key items that shape a person’s behaviors and ultimately their lives.  This is contrary to most people’s beliefs and the book directly challenges some of our political and social development systems which is one of the reasons I really like it.  I see a lot of parallels with problems areas I’ve already been exposed to, especially school systems and this book makes one think twice about the typical success factors we tend to focus on.

For me, it leaves me encouraged to continue to promote expert practice levels as obviously that is important in developing skills but it is also a wake up call to examine systems I’m involved in that form unintended prejudice because of circumstance or environmental influence.  We can’t really impact chance circumstances but in spending more time working towards something, we do increase our exposure to related areas which I think does improve our opportunities, as long as we can recognize them and take advantage of them.  Also, we ought to remove as many limits and boundaries imposed on people as possible and provide equal opportunity to teach, train, develop and coach anyone who is dedicated and committed, regardless of their environment.

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