Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell: Making a Case for Outliers

Since the first time I picked up Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, I’ve been a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell is one of those big brain guys who has a knack for storytelling. He makes computer programming, plane crashes and educating urban youth not only interesting, but compelling. I’ve gone on to read his first bestseller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference and recently finished up his newest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Outlier is a term used in the field of science to describe something that lies outside of a normal experience. Gladwell uses it to describe people (mostly men in his book) that are so accomplished and so successful they are considered outliers. Gladwell believes that it is not enough to be smart or driven, there must be a series of events that line up in such a way that makes success a possibility in these outliers’ lives.

Gladwell doesn’t go so far as to say that the individual plays no part in their own success; after all, preparation is critical in the face of opportunity. But he does make the reader consider the culture, community and generation that outliers are raised in in a more critical way.

The most fascinating “outlier” in the book is Bill Gates. Not because he is one of the richest men in the world, or that he has one of the most successful companies, but because of the way the stars aligned in his life to make it possible for him to become “Bill Gates.” I won’t ruin the chapter for you by laying out all the elements, but the fact that Bill Gates walked into his eighth grade class in 1968 and found a computer sitting there (when no other high school, including some colleges, had one) literally changed the course of history.

Another interesting element in the book is Gladwell’s fascination with the 10,000-Hour Rule: a concept that he returns to often throughout. In this extensive chapter, Gladwell provides page after page of research and examples that says simply: “10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.” So any “expert” that you can think of, if you were to interview them and find out exactly when they started on their path, without fail they would site the 10-year mark (10,000 hours) that they got really good at what they do. That goes for Michael Jordan, Mozart or Rachel Maddow. They each worked purposefully and single-mindedly in reaching those 10,000 hours of mastery and ultimately the top of their field.

One of the things that was the most difficult to accept in the 10,000 hours chapter was the idea that there are no “natural talents.” That being innately gifted in a particular task, sport, skill had very little to do with whether you would become a leader in that field. If you did not work toward those 10,000 hours, it would be quite easy for another individual, with average ability, to pass you, leaving you stunted with your “natural talents.” I’m still mulling that over.

As with all his books, Gladwell is trying to make us look at the world and each other in very different ways. To consider the impact we have on each other and how much control we really have to craft the kind of life that we want for ourselves and others.

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