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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Nature, Nurture, Luck or Judgement, What Determines Success?

Updated on October 15, 2015

If you keep an eye out for hot new writers in the non-fiction area then you have probably already heard of Gladwell. A former writer on the New Yorker and educated at the University of Toronto, Canada, he brings together sociology, history and economics, amongst other disciplines, to formulate novel ways of looking at existing phenomena and problems such as decision-making and forces that come together to effect change - and the crucial effect they can have regarding success or failure. He has become notably famous for his original and thought-provoking non-fiction on new and surprising ways at looking at our experience of certain phenomena.

Are You Destined For Career Success?

Outliers is one of his more recent books and in some ways one of the most controversial. It deals, in essence, with how much we are shaped and limited by circumstance and environment. If you've read any Malcolm Gladwell articles the themes may be familiar to you. The very positing of such a question is anathema to devotees of positive thinking, critics on the political right, and ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps’ enthusiasts for the school of hard knocks. However Gladwell comes up with some very persuasive evidence about success and its true causes.

Success Theory: Have You Put Your 10,000 Hours In?

If you skim through this book by Malcolm Gladwell 10 000 hours is a phrase you'll spot quite frequently. He takes a look at a hot current theory that in order to attain true mastery and excellence in any discipline, it is necessary to put in at least 10,000 hours of sustained, concentrated practice at it. Examples of his he provides include Bill Gates and Bill Joy, and the Beatles. All of these put in their 10,000 hours and then some, the two Bills via unusual levels of computer access at a young age, and the Beatles in Hamburg when they were offered club residencies in their early years, with long hours and demanding audiences.

The Key To Success

But what would have happened to them without those 10,000 hours? And more importantly, without the crucial opportunities they were offered, would they have ever been able to get those 10,000 hours in?

Is Your Birthday All Wrong For Sporting Success?

Gladwell looks at examples where pure accidents of circumstance, chance and birth make the difference between being able to make the most of innate potential or not. Athletes are a crucial case: Gladwell makes an excellent case, after looking at others’ research, that being born too late in the year – with the attendant shortfall in height, weight, co-ordination etc. – can make the difference between getting chosen for school and youth teams or not. In turn this means that the spring and summer-born don’t get the coaching and practice time opportunities, without which they have very little chance of making it to professional sporting status.

Is this just an assertion? No. The research referenced by Gladwell shows something extraordinary: in professional sport after professional sport, in country after country, the dates of birth of the vast majority of professional athletes fall in the first three months or so of the school years of their respective countries. This leads to the rather scary conclusion that, no matter how superlatively gifted a potential athlete you may be, if you're born at the wrong time of year then your chances of going pro and shining at your chosen sport are vanishingly small.

Is it fair?

Gladwell goes on to apply his hypothesis to many other areas and walks of life. He demonstrates that for an intellectually gifted child, success later in life is vastly dependent on social class. Examining trades and careers, he shows how, in law and the rag trade respectively, the decade of your birth and the skills your ethnic group or nationality have specialized in may determine how far you can go in life. Even scarier, he demonstrates that cultural norms you have no control over can determine how competent and effective you are as a member of aeroplane cabin crew – and how likely you are to contribute to a plane crash.

Do we need to be depressed by Gladwell's cold-eyed realism and acceptance of the determinism of circumstance? I don't think so. The greatest danger implicit in these studies is that of lack of information. If you think it possible to bootstrap your way out of any circumstance with a blind belief in your power to conquer, then you are effectively flying blind. Knowledge is power: knowledge of the limitations conferred upon you by chance and circumstance – and conversely, of the unsuspected, unfair advantages and leverage you possess – can, alternatively, power your journey to a life worth living.

The future?

Public domain image.
Public domain image. | Source


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