Friday, December 18, 2009

The Outlier Effect And Your Success

Do you find yourself getting melancholy this time of year? It’s not unusual, especially once the hoopla of the holidays starts to wane and things slow to a crawl. You start to think about what’s worked out for you this year and everything that hasn’t. Then you pick up a magazine or see a story about some hotshot that’s zoomed out of nowhere to stunning success. I guess some people have what it takes and other’s don’t. Or do they?

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm GladwellThe book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell bursts the bubble on the mystique of what makes a winner. If you think that they win and you don’t because they’re blessed with an unusually high IQ or exceptional innate talent, you’ll come away with a different view once you’ve read this text. Gladwell’s research rips the veneer off all those success stories that make you more depressed than inspired. You know the ones. There’s a guy who comes up with a bright idea. He puts some effort into it and... Voila! ... enjoys a life of fame and fortune. You can insert “miracle occurs here” for the Voila! moment.

I’ve seen these profiles on TV and always wondered what really happened. Every one of us has good ideas, works hard at least when we’re inspired, and has enjoyed a touch of success. What makes everything go click for some people while it seems to fizzle out for the rest of us?

Outliers are exceptional people. They’re the exceptions, not the rules. We read about them, watch their smiling faces being interviewed on TV and are constantly being told how special they are and how much they have because of it. They must be special. You obviously have to be born with exceptional talent, a genius IQ, a superhuman drive for success or some other quality that will lift you to the top despite adversity or humble beginnings.

Rubbish! That’s what Gladwell says. When you look deeper into the lives of the outliers, what you find is somewhat ordinary people who were born at just the right time to do what they became famous at and/or were given some exceptional privileges at a tender age. Many pioneers of the personal computer revolution needed to be born around 1955 to be the right age to pioneer it. Any earlier and they would have graduated college and been caught up in a Fortune 500 career ladder. Any later and they would not have had the skill set or experience to participate. Take note that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born between 1953 and 1955.

Another key factor is the what Gladwell calls the 10,000 hour rule. You need 10,000 hours of practice to be a competent practitioner. Even those rising stars that seem to be propelled by native ability alone got their 10,000 hours in somehow. The Beatles got theirs playing 8 hour gigs in Hamburg long before they materialized on the Ed Sullivan Show. Bill Gates got his beginning at a private school that offered something no public school had at the time -- a computer terminal for students with time sharing on a mainframe in Seattle.

Yes, it does make a difference to be born into families of means versus struggling with crushing poverty or modestly getting by. Having someone of wealth, influence, education, talent or success to mentor you during those early years of interest can supercharge your development. That doesn’t mean every privileged child achieves super success. Some just don’t have the ambition or smarts to be more than mediocre.

Bill Gates wasn’t handed success, but he was enabled by being born at the right time to the right circumstances. He still had to take the ball and run, as they say. There were plenty of other youngsters coming of age at the same time from similar backgrounds that you’ll never hear of.

Some may read this book and find confirmation of their conviction that they haven’t achieved enough and won’t ever because they didn’t get the advantages that accident of birth awarded others. But I actually found this to be a very hopeful and empowering book. It blows away the mystique of “and then a miracle occurs” and basically says that you’ve got what it takes if you want to make a go of it. By understanding the lucky breaks that have boosted others, you may be able to identify what you’ve been missing and find a way to get or compensate for it later in life. The 10,000 hour rule? Hey, this is the first hour of the next 10,000 hours. What will you do to get the most out of them?

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