My dissatisfaction with the current overbearing schedule for students in high school has led me to do quite a bit of reading. (To see my reading list about success and education, click here.) One of the first books I read was Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcom Gladwell. It had been on my reading list for awhile for completely unrelated reasons, so when it was recommended to me as a follow up to World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao, I moved it to the top. Among other things, World Class Learners used Steve Jobs, an Outlier, as an example of a successful entrepreneur so much that I was curious to see an analysis of his success.
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Outliers was very entertaining and easy to read. However, the entire second half of the book didn’t seem to fit with the first. The first part is titled Opportunity. It was devoted to analyzing the success of “outliers,” people who’s successes stand out above the pack. The second half is titled Legacy. It tries to show how culture leads to the success or failings of a society as a whole. Gladwell fails in his attempt to tie the two parts together.
I’ll start by looking at the first part, Opportunity, because it’s the part I found the most useful. (And, well, it’s also the first part.)
Opportunity – it’s role in Outliers, by Gladwell
A lot of the first half is dedicated to showing how the luck of timing plays an important part in success.
How Luck is Important to Success
- Pro-sports players tend to have birth months that give them an advantage in their respective age-based youth leagues.
- If you want to be one of the richest people in all of history, it helps to be born during the years of 1931-1940. (Oops! I missed being born one of those years by a little. Ha!)
- Computer mega-stars were likely to be born in the years 1954-55 and got early access to computers when they still weren’t common. (Just in case you’re trying to compute my age, I missed that too.) Those are the birth years of Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems and Java), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Steve Jobs (Apple), among others.
Timing is important, Gladwell argues, because it gave the Outliers opportunities to amass 10,000 hours of practice at a young and stellar age before others did.
10,000 hours of practice is more important to success than intelligence or talent
Gladwell goes a lot into the 10,000 hours rule, but I’ll just summarize by saying that there are many examples that show that’s the amount of practice time it takes to really excel at a skill.
Acquiring that skill leads to more opportunities.
It’s snowball effect and it helps if – because of timing – you’re on a good, snow-covered slope to begin with and ahead of other people.
He then goes on to show that the 10,000 hours of practice is more important to acquiring the needed skill than intelligence or talent.
One example he uses to illustrate the lesser importance of intelligence is the famous Lewis Terman intelligence study that started in the 1920s. Terman was trying to identify gifted kids and predict the next world leaders, such as future Nobel Prize winners. While he did identify some successful people, he failed to select a single stellar leader, and he picked just as many or more failures. Not only that, but his study discarded two future Nobel Prize winners as not being “smart enough” to be geniuses. (I also think the Terman intelligence test, the beginning of gifted and talented tests, is a very important example of how your intelligence can’t really be measured by any test. It’s one of the real downfalls of Gifted and Talented selection process in our schools. Don’t get me started.)
When it comes to success, more than one “type” of intelligence is important
In addition to traditional intelligence, Gladwell asserts that you also need “practical intelligence,” or basically the ability figure out what you need and to talk other people into giving it to you. It’s an ability to talk your way out of any problem. Basically, it means you know how to ask for special favors, and get them. He gives examples of people who are able to do this and be successful, like Steve Jobs and a successful immigrant garment entrepreneur.
I found this really interesting, because I learned that I shouldn’t ask for people to make exceptions for me. If you ask too much, people will resent you. And when it comes to our own kids and school, we’ve been doing almost the same thing. While we have been teaching them to stand up for themselves, I feel like we also keep telling them that they’re one of a lot of kids, the teacher has a lot to do, don’t expect them to make an exception for you….yada, yada, yada.
To some extent this is true. But from the biography of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, it’s clear that he thought he was special. He not only thought he was special; he knew he was special. Look where that got him.
Gladwell closes Part 1 with a study that traces the success of Jewish lawyers in the 1970s to their roots in the immigrant garment business. He attributes those successes to a heritage, which was at first a drawback, that turned into an advantage – by a combination of hard work and luck in timing. Basically, it boiled down to that all these lawyers owed their success to …
Which is part 2 of Outliers.
I’ll be looking at the second part of Outliers, Legacy, in my next post.