Editor’s Note: This is the third in a monthly series of book reviews by the Search Engine Journal editorial team. Join us each month to discuss our picks on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ using the hashtag #SEJBookClub and via the comments below.
Outliers by Malcom Gladwell challenges how we view successful people and how we look at ourselves. It asks the question “Is success a birth right or is it earned?” And not just small successes, like earning a really awesome link or getting a ton of traffic on a killer infographic, but extraordinary success like Bill Gates or the most elite athletes in the world.
What Does Success Look Like?
Often, we look at the extraordinarily successful with a sense of “otherness”. Sure, we may consider ourselves smart and quite capable, but not on level with, say, Warren Buffet. These personal perceptions may vary from person to person, but I suspect most of us do not consider ourselves on par with the richest men in the world. (Not for lack of dreaming on my part.)
So, how do these highly successful people look to many of us? And how did they get there? Demographically, they are likely to be white men. They tend to be from middle or upper class households. Often the parents are well educated, they usually go to better schools. They end up at the Harvards of the world, which just makes it more likely they will end up fabulously successful.
But are these preconceived notions accurate?
According to Gladwell, they aren’t.
He breaks down our conceptions of success and what it takes to be exceptionally successful. Lets look at a few of the factors Gladwell argues play a role in how successful we are.
Hard Work Matters More Than We Know
This aspect of success seems obvious. We all know that hard work matters, right?
But Gladwell breaks down how much it matters.
One example he gives is a study of violin players in Berlin, Germany. In the 1990’s a psychologist by the name of Ericsson studied the practice habits of elite violin players. They asked each player:
“Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”
Practice Makes Perfect
All the violists had picked up the violin at roughly the same age and practiced similar amounts as small children. Around eight years of age, scientist began to notice a difference. The very best violinist players, those likely to have a career as a world class violin player, practiced more than any other players. At age nine, they practiced six more hours a week than violists deemed to be “good” or “unlikely to play professionally”. By the age of 20, they practiced up to 30 hours a week more.
Those are incredible numbers. To be fair, most of us do not have the ability to do much other than work for 30 hours a week. For world class musicians, there are likely other factors at play – the ability to attend an elite music school (which all the violinists in the study did), a family who supports and encourages, and even an interest in playing for that long.
But what doesn’t play a part?
Pure, raw talent.
According to Malcom, the most talented violinists in the world aren’t innately better than you or I – they just practice more. This rings true for everyone from Mozart to Bill Gates.
Communication Can Make or Break You
As marketers, we understand the importance of communication. That is why we A/B test and run keyword audits. But could being a good communicator make the difference between a life of success and failure?
Turns out it can.
Consider the different life paths of two equally intelligent men: Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer.
Chris was born into a painfully poor family. His mother’s husband was a drunk who often deserted the family for weeks at a time. It was obvious to the school and his family that Chris was a gifted student, and he was offered two full scholarships upon graduating high school. That’s where things went down hill.
College was an extremely difficult transition for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Then his mother didn’t fill out the financial aid paper work correctly and he lost his scholarship. The school would do nothing to help. So he transferred to a school closer to home and worked odd jobs. Then his truck broke down and he need to switch to evening classes, and his teachers wouldn’t allow him. Today, Chris studies and writes complicated theories about physics, philosophy, and math. Work which will likely never be published or even read by the academic community.
Robert Oppenheimer, much like Chris, was a highly intelligent child and considered a genius by his parents. He went onto attend Harvard and then Cambridge. He had an extraordinary mind, but often struggled with depression. In one instance, he was caught trying to poison his teacher.
What was the end result? He was put on probation and later became the physicist who headed the American efforts to develop a nuclear bomb in WWII. That is correct – a man who apparently struggled with mental illness to the point where he tried to poison his teacher was later in charge of one of the most dangerous weapons ever developed in the United States.
Why the Difference?
What accounts for the difference in the trajectory of these two men’s lives? Money? Probably a bit. Intelligence? No, the two men seemed to have similar minds. The time period in which they were born? Perhaps.
The biggest difference was that Robert Oppenheimer was a smooth talker. He knew how to advocate for himself and he knew how to get people to do what he wanted. Remember, when called before the board because he tried to murder his teacher, he talked his way into probation. While Chris Langan couldn’t convince his teacher to let his switch to night classes, which teachers allow all the time.
Robert was better at communicating, plain and simple.
Are Opportunities The Real Secret To Success?
Call them opportunities, or call them dumb luck. Either way, these are factors no one can control or even predict.
As an example, Gladwell looks at Bill Joy, one of the programmers who wrote the UNIX code. At college Joy happened to live within walking distance to the Computer Center at University of Michigan, which happened to be one of the most cutting edge centers in the country, and he happened to find a bug in the software that allowed him to code for hours without being charged. These opportunities allowed him the opportunity to practice for hours on end.
Or, consider Canadian hockey players born on January 1st, which is the cut off age for joining hockey leagues. On January 1st, he has just had his ninth birthday. He is nearly a year older than a child born on December 15th. As a result, the older child starts out a bit larger, a bit stronger, and a bit more mature.
At that point, he is a slightly better player — which means he is more likely to be chosen for elite teams where he has access to better coaches, more play time, and more practice. In the end he is a much better player than the child born on December 15th, but he didn’t start that way.
Gladwell offers examples of these opportunists over and over again. And they aren’t always so obviously positive. Some times those opportunities are being born Jewish and shunned from joining the top law firms. Or that your father was a garment worker, or a grocer.
Gladwell’s book inspired me, partially because, for me at least, it destroyed the idea that success is based upon some innate skill or talent which cannot be earned or taught. It also left me feeling a touch indifferent because so much of success seems built upon luck, or opportunities. After reading Outliers, or my analysis of the book, what do you think of the following points?
1. Gladwell argues the idea of “rag to riches” self made man is a myth and highly successful people often succeed because of their circumstances, not in spite of them. Does this ring true to you?
2. Did the book change how you view highly successful people? If so, in what way? Does exceptional success seem more or less attainable for you?
3. Do you accept the idea of the 10,000 hour rule? Why or why not?
4. Do you believe in the idea of “innate talent”? If so, how do you define it?
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