Outliers: Success According to Malcolm Gladwell

I will start by saying this: Malcolm Gladwell has done it again!

The book is simply a must-read.

It offers some unique insight into how “geniuses” are made (that’s right, not born), how they rise to success, and that being very smart is simply not enough get one fame and fortune.

The book’s main idea, in fact, is quite intuitive: “People don’t rise from nothing.” There is always someone or something that has helped them on the way up–be it a supportive parent or a coach, life circumstances, or lucky coincidences.

The notion that the best and the brightest make it to the top because of the extra effort and determination that they put into their goals, is an illusion, Malcolm Gladwell claims. Rather, opportunity plays a much bigger role in success than we often want to admit.

The book further goes on to explore this idea by providing numerous examples. For instance,  that the month we are born in can influence our career and lives– especially when it comes to playing professional sports.

Of course, not everything is pure chance and opportunity. We do need to have the talent. We need to be not only good at what we do–we need to be very very good. We must work harder, we need to practice more, to become experts.

In fact, this is where the much-famed “magic” number of 10,000 comes into play– in order to become better than the rest at what we do, we need to have practiced for at least 10,000 hours (roughly equal to 9 years of work).

Prodigies are not simply born exceptional, they are made exceptional, the book claims. How? With lots and lots of practice.

Of course, in order for anyone to be able to do this, there are few “pre-requisites.” You must be born in a family that encourages your development. You need to not be poor, since having a second job or being raised in a family that struggles financially may mean that your talents will be neglected at the price of survival. In other words–you need to grow up in a bubbled environment–one that will allow you to focus on your talent and practice…for 10,000 hours (The Beatles and Bill Gates are the perfect examples of this, by the way).

Another interesting idea in the book is that being very very smart, i.e. having a very high IQ, does not guarantee that one day we may win the Nobel Prize. High IQ is needed to win the recognition but not necessarily very high IQ.

That is, “intelligence has a threshold.” intellect matters only up to a point. Beyond it, other things come into play–things that determine who, among two equally intelligent people, will earn a Nobel Prize and who may go through life unnoticed and their talents–unrecognized. And the 2 main determinants are: our environment and our opportunities. 

While opportunities in life are crucial to success, there is something else that matters a greater deal–a personality trait of sorts. Malcolm Gladwell calls it a “practical intelligence.” [1]  It means to know “what to say to whom, when to say it and how to say it for maximum effect.” As it can be inferred, it is a priceless skill to have.

The good news is that it can be developed. But the bad news is that it’s not that easy–in fact, it takes time, support and encouragement from one’s family, from a very young age. In other words, we need to have been exposed to a so-called “concerned cultivation” parenting style–one that will foster our talents and skills early on. A little encouragement does go a long way, it seems.

Overall, the book doesn’t disappoint. The main notion that success is not achieved in isolation is intuitively true. As the author notes, “no one–not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses–ever makes it alone.”

Success is a function of persistence and doggedness, and the willingness to work harder than the rest. It is not the brightest that make it to the top. It is not simply a sum of all our choices.

It’s also a gift to be able to spot the opportunities that are presented to us and to seize them. Because most often, all we need to reach our stars is to simply be given the chance to do so. Then, our personality, talents and skills will prove if we have what it takes to stay at the top.

And let’s not forget–we need a bit of luck too.


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[1]The term itself is coined by Prof. Robert Sternberg in his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. The theory claims that we each posses 3 types of intelligence–analytical, creative and practical. Of the three, practical is one of the greatest significance to our success–it determines how well we can adapt and shape our environment.

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