…is the most recent book from Malcolm Gladwell, who also wrote the very, very excellent Tipping Point and Blink, both great treatises on their respective subjects. Malcolm has a knack for being able to present dense and complex material in a way that it holds together and makes sense very quickly.
Outliers is no exception. I found this copy on my desk about a week ago (thanks, Tad!) and immediately started reading it, and basically couldn’t put it down once I’d started.
The essential thesis is that the notion of the Outlier–the truly exceptional person, whose talent and ability lie completely outside of normal experience–is, in fact, deeply flawed. Further, our worldview of the self-made man is a lie, and that our egalitarian notions of humble beginnings and pluck are mostly distorted delusions.
Instead, he argues, most of the people we consider Outliers, whom we tend to think of as wildly gifted, are really no different than you or I, other than the ridiculous luck of timing, parentage and hard, hard work.
To make his point, he provides a wide range of examples, such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy, genius Christopher Langan, Mozart, the Beatles, and dozens of other lesser-known but seemingly obvious Outliers.
Along the way, we learn about the connections between:
- Canadian Hockey players and performance distance in our schools
- Culture and plane crashes
- Rice paddies and homework
I’ll let you read the book for the nitty-gritty details, but I bring it up here because it’s had a powerful impact on me and where I’m at in my own life.
Those of you who know me closely, know that I’ve been on a journey this year to evaluate and re-examine the basic assumptions of my life, so each of you may note the things that I feel are resonating with the path I’m on. His key theses for the book are:
No one’s success can be properly understood independent of their culture
For this point, he underscores the broad strokes of success by listing the 75 richest people of history (obviously, net worth being normalized to allow for comparison). The list inlcudes folks like Cleopatra and King William II, Bill Gates and Sam Walton, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.
He also notes that 14 of the top 75 were all born in the same nine-year period in the mid-18th century. The key point being here that those who were born in order to be young, energetic and capable, just as the Industrial Revolution was taking off in America, were uniquely positioned to be able to make themselves Outliers. Had they been born even a few years earlier, or later, he contests, many (if not all) of them would never have made themselves known to us today.
In the same vein, he draws out the example of Korean Air, who in the late 1990’s, experienced an inordinate number of plane crashes, and almost completely went out of business, before learning this core lesson, teaching their pilots new ways to communicate, and turning themselves around.?? Again, cultural context for Koreans, and their societal “power distance” (the extent to which they will–or will not–challenge authority in order to make themselves heard), meant that poor decisions in the cockpit were not to be challenged, and planes went down rather than confronting the captain with bad judgment or mistakes.
No man is an island
This seems obvious as well, but it is an important component of the book. Here, he moves from the broad, cultural context of influence, to the more specific circumstances of birth, parentage, parenting and opportunity. Pulling from more contemporary examples, he holds out both Bill Gates and Bill Joy, two stalwarts in the computer industry.
Far from being “super geniuses” who were destined to succeed, he notes that both of them count themselves as extremely lucky people, as both of them had extraordinary early access to work on computers and hone their ability to program them. Bill Gates’ high school had a time-share computer terminal in 1967, years before most colleges in the country had similar resources, and Gladwell makes much hay of the lead time that Gates got by being able to work on that system and develop his programming acumen. Similarly, he points out that Bill Joy had substantial early access that afforded him a wide-open opportunity to learn software and get ahead of basically the rest of the world.
As a counter-example, he picks Jeb Bush, who routinely asserts things like “I am a self-made man” and “Being the son of a former President is a liability [in running for governor of Florida].” Clearly, Jeb would not be where he was today without the substantial influence of his father, his brother, and even Vannevar Bush, who was a senator during the World Wars.
The key thesis here is that even though these folks may appear to be legitimate outliers with extraordinary talents and uncanny agility, mostly, they’ve just been the benefactors of an enormous amount of luck (and the ability and wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them). This leads inexorably to the third core thesis:
There is no such thing as an Outlier
Here, he goes to great lengths to show that of the many successful people who we consider to be exceptional and beyond measure, their success is not born of nature, nor nuture, but of very, very hard work.
The Beatles are one example given here, where he focuses on the several years’ the Beatles played together before they broke out here and abroad. In the period prior to their huge success, the Beatles played a great deal in Hamburg, Germany, where the setups required the bands to play onstage for 8 or 10 or even 12 hours at a stretch. A conservative estimate of how much stage time the Beatles had put under their belts before they broke out huge is somewhere north of 10,000 hours.
This number, 10,000 hours, turns out to be very key to the notions of expertise and success. Returning to Bill Gates and Bill Joy, he finds credible estimates that both of them had to spend over 10,000 hours learning to code software before they considered themselves experts. He also pulls out other examples, like Mozart, who even though he had started composing music at the age of six (this has been famously contested for years, where folks insist that most of the “writing” came during the transcription process that his composer father–see the point above–may have provided as editor and scribe), he did not start producing credible works of “genius” until his early twenties, well after he’d acquired his requisite 10,000 hours of composing.
Another powerful counter-example is provided here, in the deep and broad research done to try and find the true Outlier, one whose talent and luck were so profound, that they were able to circumvent the 10,000 hours of work required for expertise and genius.
They couldn’t find a single one.
So, why should I care, and why should you go read this book?
Well, for me, it’s both gratifying knowing that, basically, I’d been born too late to be Bill Gates or Bill Joy (or their analogs), and substantively, I was also born too early to be open-minded enough to succeed during dotCommunism. This blends both the greater cultural context point (the timing I’ve already spoken to) with the more specific point of opportunity and sheer luck (of which I have neither). It allows me to let go of some of the angst and concern about my own relative success–this is no small victory, as the desire to “rule the world” (not really, but to have a seriously wide-swatch impact on it) turns into poison that saps my motivation and leaves me feeling inadequate and ignored.
It also has implications for me and where I am going with my career. It seems that I am very nearly bound for a major change, and I find that I’m still in the same place I was in this time last year–exasperated with the tech career, and wondering what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.
Here, I am recognizing that, unlike my childhood and the complete lack of opportunities to be exposed to either vast cultural boons or local expertise that I might have absorbed, I currently am working with a bona fide 10,000 hour expert, in the name of Chet Wooding.
Methinks I should make the most of that opportunity.
And so should you: go out, get this book, and come to grips with your own failure to be an Outlier. As it turns out, it probably wasn’t your fault.