Since reading Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, I’ve been looking forward to Malcolm Gladwell‘s next book. Outliers: The Story of Success didn’t disappoint, and I recommend reading it yourself.

As the book’s title suggests, Gladwell’s text is about success and outliers; however, he engages the reader from the get-go by starting with a definition of outlier expressly to follow-up by quickly suggesting a concrete redefinition of what is truly an outlier and what determines success. Gladwell challenges the reader to think in less-conventional terms (e.g. thinking about health in terms of community–beyond just the individual): “…there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.”

Outliers has two parts, focused on opportunity and legacy, respectively. Part one emphasizes “from-ness” (i.e. from where (e.g. birthplace), from when (e.g. time, era, norms), from how (e.g. culture, legacy), etc.). In doing so, part one indicates by one example after another why merely personal explanations of success don’t work.

     Where are you from?

Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of the those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play–and by ‘we’ I mean society–in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.

Gladwell states, “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” He then goes on to uncover patterns of achievement and underachievement as well as patterns of encouragement and discouragement. He focuses on the work ethic of those who are purposeful, single-minded, intentional–who achieve success by working much, much harder.

  • Adversity presenting itself as opportunity
  • Developing skills amidst obscurity
  • Meaningful – complexity, autonomy and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work
  • “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning.”

For example, the “10,000 hour rule” is discussed (i.e. its typically takes 10K hours of deliberate practice to develop true expertise and world-class mastery). The point of the discussion is not to admire those who earn such mastery as much as it is to understand the kinds of obstacles most of us encounter in the pursuit of such commitment. Furthermore, it concerns the creation of (more) equal opportunities for practicing in order to reach greater common potential: “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

     Are you regularly practicing what your core profession requires
     (e.g. modeling, design, coding, testing, writing)?

“Success arises out of a steady accumulation of advantages.”
“Extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.”
     Talent: intellect, “general intelligence,” innate ability
     Opportunity: imagination, savvy, “practical intelligence,” surrounding
     community, family background, demographics, virtues and values
     (e.g. frugality, initiative, sacrifice)

“General intelligence” and “practical intelligence” are orthogonal (i.e. presence of one doesn’t imply the presence of the other); therefore, keep clear and separate (i.e. don’t confuse one for the other).

Part two, moves from opportunity to legacy and starts by focusing on cultural legacies (e.g. a culture of honor, where reputation is of foremost concern). The focus becomes about teamwork and communication (e.g. “mitigated speech”). For example, understanding cultural legacy as a way to effectively combat mitigation (i.e. developing clearer and more assertive communication where both transmitter and receiver are not a afraid to speak up or to speak straight).

To bring cultural legacy into better focus, Gladwell leverages the Cultural Dimensions work of Geert Hofstede (e.g. IDV – Individualism (i.e. what Gladwell refers to as the individualism-collectivism scale), UAI – Uncertainty Avoidance Index, PDI – Power Distance Index). For example, the United States has the highest IDV score and the fifth-lowest PDI score.

Mitigated speech and high PDI influence communication, especially when the person speaking (transmitter) and the person listening (receiver) have different orientation. In Western cultures, communication tends to be transmitter-oriented (i.e. speaker is responsible to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously). However, in Asian cultures, communication tends to be receiver-oriented (i.e. listener is responsible to make sense of what is being said). For this reason, I believe that communication is both my responsibility and also a two-way discipline (i.e. if you don’t understand something speak up–I’m trying my best to be clear). It’s why I prefer more interactive sessions at conferences, etc.

As a mathematician by training, I was fascinated to learn that, as human beings, we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. When you compare the fairly transparent Asian number system with the highly irregular number system in English, it starts to become clearer how English-speaking (English-thinking) student accumulate a disadvantage. Stowe Boyd goes into more detail of Gladwell’s treatment of this cultural legacy. (I need to start thinking si instead of four, qi instead of seven, etc. :-) )

Cultural legacy suggests to me that it would be naive to apply an American timeline to the future development of, for example, China. Rice paddies aren’t fields of corn or wheat (i.e. skill-oriented versus mechanically-oriented farming tradition). So why should it take the Chinese the same amount of time to “modernize” as it did take Americans?

You’ve likely heard or seen the business cliché “Your attitude determines your altitude.” Well, Outliers posits that success is not much about ability as it is about attitude. That is, success is a function of persistence, doggedness and willingness to work hard. Success is more about out-learning than it is about being smarter. School works, but there just isn’t enough of it (e.g. 180 days versus 243 days–American versus Japanese school year). Or said another way, school isn’t the problem as much as summer vacation may be.

In closing:

  • “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities–and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
  • Success is a gift.
  • “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success–the fortunate birth date and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

P.S. I recently began a major revision of my Books page. You can now more easily see other book reviews I’ve posted herein. Soon you’ll be able to see what else is in my book library (i.e. just the business-related or software-related non-fiction therein). Why? Well, if you’re nearby and you see something of interest, please ask to borrow books of interest. If you’re not (i.e. regardless of your location to me), I’m hoping that opening up my library will help to solicit feedback as to what the especially good reads are (and why). I typically have multiple books queued up to read; so, knowing what should be top-of-list from my readers would be welcome feedback. Cheers…

Update 12/26/2008: Today I was able to get to watching the second part of Charlie Rose’s show on performance where, after interviewing Malcolm Gladwell in the first half, he interviewed the author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin. Mr. Colvin referenced the little known body of scientific work concerning deliberate practice, much like Mr. Gladwell drew upon it in Outliers. I appreciated Mr. Colvin’s belief, based on conversation with this scientific community, that the research frontier here is parenting.