Outliers: The Story of Success

“We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.” (Gladwell 24-25)

Outliers: The Story of Success”, by Malcom Gladwell is an outstanding book, which opens the eyes, and gives a better understanding of

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...
Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

what it means to become successful. If I would have to recommend only one book from all the ones presented on this blog so far, it would certainly be this one; that’s how good it was!

The reason rests on the fact that it zooms in on a completely different angle of success than the one presented to us by fairy tales (both the ones told by mass-media and the ones from our childhood). It shows that success is a matter of hard-work (lots and lots of it) and sheer luck.

The idea of hard work sounds like such a cliché, that many readers might be reluctant to even try to understand why Gladwell would write an entire book on success, if he merely presents a belief that has already existed for centuries. The problem, however, is that more often than not, a story about success is presented to the public as a motivational story, where many important details are left aside. This has the great bonus of inspiring others, but you see, when the entire tale is not told, this inspiration becomes a mere jump start, but it fails to fuel individuals after the first step has been made.

It seems cruelly unfair that luck should be a component of something as crucial in life as success, but perhaps this is nature’s way of infiltrating its already-known habit of dealing cards at random. However, the more I think about this, the more I realize that the term “fairness” has no relevance in this context, for nature cannot foresee what is yet to happen. Of course, part of the reason for why it can’t see is because it lacks the ability to do so (unlike a human, it is mindless). Even if this weren’t the case, it would further lack the ability to decide who is deserving of success, and who is not until after a good chunk of their life has passed. Unless you believe in determinism, and in God. But I’m getting into philosophical territory here, and that’s slightly off track.

Here are some of the lessons one can learn from reading the book:

1)      “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good” (Gladwell 30) ;            Success= Practice + Opportunity

What this quote is getting at, is the fact that you can’t be good at anything unless you do it a lot. I’ve already discussed this lesson in the intro, but I want to highlight it here as well, because it is the most important idea that one should get out of reading the book (You might disagree with me, and if you do, let me know what you do consider to be most important). Gladwell approximates that one would need around 10, 000 hours put into a skill in order to master it. 10, 000!! That’s 10 years of 40 hours a week, every week.  Interestingly enough, there are other studies out there, pointing out that the idea of 10, 000 hours is wrong. If you’d like to read more about this, check out the last link in the ‘Related articles” section bellow.

Now, there’s another factor that goes into success, which is the most forgotten: opportunity. Again, I mentioned this before, but when I think

English: Drawing of Marshall's Mills, Holbeck ...
English: Drawing of Marshall’s Mills, Holbeck showing operators at their machines. From the Penny Magazine Supplement, December 1843 “A Day at a Leeds Flax Mill”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

of how overlooked it is, I forgive myself for repeating it. It doesn’t matter if you’re great at what you’re doing, if the occasion does not arise for you to prove it. Let’s think of what happened during the Industrial Revolution. It would not matter during that time if you were an amazing craftsman, because you would not be able to compete with the large production and lower prices of the products made in factories. This illustrates just how much opportunity matters in matters of success.

2)      Being born in a wealthy family has more advantages than meets the eye

Of course, having money is terrific, but that’s not the entire story. As it turns out, children who come from well-to-do families benefit from having parents that stand up for them. Not only that, but they are also taught to do so by themselves when the time comes. This is important, because everyone is so concerned with their own problems, that it becomes impossible to watch out for all the others. Each individual has to speak up for themselves. Otherwise, their voice will get lost somewhere in the crowd.

3)      Meaningful job is the result of three factors: complexity, autonomy and connection between  effort and reward

Many tend to think that a simple job would be perfect, because it doesn’t require much mental and/or physical struggle.  However, research has shown that it is particularly that struggle that brings about happiness. Why? Well, because after a while of doing the same, repetitive task, the experience becomes boring. Boredom and happiness don’t quite go together. That’s where complexity comes in, making the person feel like they’re achieving something.

In addition to complexity, autonomy also brings about meaning in one’s work. This is pretty obvious, I believe, but we all need to be appreciated for our work. When this appreciation comes on an individual basis, it is maximized, and thus, so is the resulting pleasure.

Finally, there needs to exist a connection between the effort put in and the resulting reward. If this connection is created, the individual becomes motivated to put in more work so that the benefit grows accordingly.

I couldn’t help but think of communism while I was writing this. Perhaps part of the reason why it was doomed to failure as a regime in Europe was particularly because it lacked all of the components necessary for a job that feels worthwhile.

4)      Politeness isn’t always the best thing

This becomes apparent in the last part of the book, in which Gladwell discusses the importance of getting your point across. He gives the example of pilots and co-pilots as they work together to fly an airplane. Many times, he points out, the pilot is tired and does not notice when something is wrong. This is where the co-pilot should come in, but if he or she does not know how to get their point across, disaster can soon follow. Important to note is the fact that the issue at hand is much more complex than this, as cultural background also comes into play.The details can be gathered from the book, but for the purpose of this post I’ll stick to the bigger implications.

In day-to-day life, we often choose to be polite to others, partially in order to avoid conflict. Indeed, politeness is essential for a society like ours, where it acts as a contract of sorts between its citizens. Nevertheless, there are circumstances where being polite stands in the way of being honest and speaking one’s mind. In these cases, each individual needs to make the decision between the two courses of action, and choose the best one.  Just keep in mind that sometimes politeness blocks truthful communication and thus, can come in the way of meaningful interaction between individuals.

 

 

That’s about it for “The Story of Success”. The road to success, as it has been pointed out many times before, is not a straight one. It is a

Aristotle (1811) Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice
Aristotle (1811) Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

commitment that lasts a lifetime, but that is also what makes it so grand once it is achieved, and then, maintained. I’ll end with the words of the great Aristotle, as they capture quite a lot (but not all) of what it takes to succeed:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The last article is quite interesting, because it points out the flaws in the book, from a scientific perspective. Make sure to read it when you have time!

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