April 6, 2011

Success: When Preparation Meets Opportunity Meets the Family

I was first introduced to Malcolm Gladwell’s writing when I picked up a copy of Blink a couple years ago. I was hoping for a lesson in how to make quick decisions. But what I got was even better: a deeper appreciation for the intricacies of the human mind and its natural processes. With each new chapter, each new tidbit discussed, I was hooked, and I made a mental note to check out Gladwell’s other books in the future. That’s what brought me to Outliers: The Story of Success.

In Outliers, Gladwell challenges our taken for granted ideas about what success is. In a nutshell, the pervading message of the book is that success is not an accident, a lucky break, or merely someone overcoming the odds. Instead, success is the result of several predictable factors and circumstances and includes both extraordinary talent and extraordinary opportunities.

From the Beatles to Bill Gates, Gladwell shows us that those who are successful have several things in common. First, their stories reveal that excellence at a particular task requires a minimum level of practice: 10,000 hours, or about ten years.

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good,” Gladwell writes. “It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Practice really does make perfect.

These successful people were given an opportunity to work hard and they took it. But they also happened to be born at the right time, when “their extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society.” They won the demographic lottery. So success was not just of their own making, but a product of the world in which they grew up.

Another common belief is that the higher your IQ, the smarter you are, the more successful you will be. But Outliers suggests that IQ is not the whole story and really, after a certain range (about 120, while the average is 100), additional IQ points don’t offer any real advantage. Practical intelligence—knowing how to ask for and get what you want—is just as important, if not more so. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and work them to your advantage.

Gladwell notes that, while IQ is basically a measure of an innate ability, social savvy is something that's learned. For example, the attitude of “entitlement”—of not being afraid to question authority and ask for what you want—is a common middle to upper-class attitude. This attitude is also what it takes to succeed in the modern world. Success, then, not only depends on hard work and opportunity, but also relies on lessons learned from our families:

“Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.”

These cultural legacies are powerful, remaining throughout the generations. Gladwell’s discussion of the garment industry of the 1900s in New York city and rice farmers in Asia really brings this point home, illustrating how the ethic of hard work is passed on to future generations, and this attitude contributes to successful professionals.

“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard.”

Often when we hear stories of success, they typically include the theme of triumph over adversity. Gladwell addresses this belief head on, noting that time and again, “what started out as adversity ended up being an opportunity.” The key is to seize the opportunities that come your way.

Simply put, the Coles Notes version of all this is basically:

Success = a large dose of hard work and persistence + a generous amount of social intelligence and know-how (thanks to cultural legacy) + a dash of the right opportunities + a dollop of pluck to seize those opportunities

While challenging the common beliefs about what contributes to an individual’s success, then, Outliers demonstrates how several forces are at play—both within an individual and without. In the process, Gladwell argues that society needs to provide opportunities for all to be successful, not just those with the right upbringing or advantages.

In knowing what it takes to be successful, I think we can all incorporate these lessons into our own lives. For me, Outliers is a strong reminder that diligence does pay off. The key is to remain persistent and be bold enough to take the chances that come your way.

[Image from here.]

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