Before he started writing string after string of nonfiction bestseller – with Outliers being his third consecutive title to hit the New York Times Bestseller List – Malcolm Gladwell was grinding it as a literary journalist for the New Yorker.
His first book, The Tipping Point, tried to find the moment of inflection that took every day things to cultural phenomenons and tried to highlight how smart marketers, savvy business people, and influencers around the world could create “tipping points” to change our world in ways not even they could expect or anticipate.
His second book, Blink, shined a light on our own subconscious and its incredible power. He flipped a light switch in our culture to show just how influential the subconscious really is with this book, and illustrated in perfect clarity how fast our subconscious works (often times with very little data to pull conclusions from).
But it is this third book, Outliers, that has really cemented Gladwell’s position as one of the most influential thinkers and writers in this modern era.
Diving deep into the how and the why behind the ultrasuccessful in our modern world, as well as those that have enjoyed success since the earliest moments of recorded history, Outliers really probes the concept of the “self-made man” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”.
By the time you’re done with Outliers you’ll have a much better appreciation for the impact that factors well out of our control have on our success while at the same time truly understanding just how much we are able to dictate the way our life plays out.
If that sounds a little bit contradictory at first that’s perfectly fine. It’s living in this kind of “gray space” that Gladwell encourages with the message in Outliers, and it’s something that we as a culture need to wrap our heads around if we’re going to enjoy the kind of success that we all hope to enjoy.
Deconstructing the Myth of Talent
Right out of the box (in the first section of the book) Gladwell really starts to deconstruct and pull down the myth of talent being the underlying principle that helps people achieve the amazing success they are able to enjoy later on in life.
Never arguing that talent is unimportant when it comes to achieving real success, Gladwell instead shows how a wide variety of successful professionals – across a range of different industries – are able to achieve the pinnacle of their career because of a whole host of environmental factors that they had little to no control whatsoever.
For example, Gladwell illustrates the fact that some of the most successful hockey players Canada produces every year are born a lot closer to 1 January than any other time throughout the year. Players that are born near the New Year have an extra opportunity to mature, are able to build their bodies longer than those that compete at the same level but born closer to artificial cutoff dates, and are able to take advantage of these environmental factors to improve beyond their peers.
Gladwell also shows how Bill Joy and Bill Gates both were able to parlay being born in the 1950s into considerable success in the computing industry. The technology that they had access to in their developmental years, and the technology that they were able to help pioneer in the early stages of the computing revolution (during the 1970s and 1980s) allowed them to influence the future of the world in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if they were born even just a little bit earlier or a little bit later in time.
This is also the section of the book where Gladwell dives deeper into the deconstructing of “self determinism”, that certain people are born with a “genius” and replacing that myth with the concept of geniuses being created or made.
Gladwell contends that influential musicians like Mozart and The Beatles were not unstoppable musical prodigies (though these artists certainly had incredible talent and skill) but that they were instead able to achieve the pinnacle of success because they were willing to “grind” for more than 10,000 hours of practice to become true masters of their universe.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
The biggest take away from the largest early section of Outliers has to be the concept of the 10,000 Hour Rule, a rule that Gladwell believes is the biggest determining factor between success and failure – as well as the biggest determining factor between whether or not someone will be able to achieve the highest goals in the truest sense of mastery in the air given field.
Basing this rule often significant studies and research into the world of top performance (some of this research stretching back decades), Gladwell found that the number one “universal” consistent between elite performers across all fields and endeavors was that all of them had spent at least 10,000 hours practicing – deliberately practicing – and honing their skills.
This forms the bedrock of the rest of the book, and cements Gladwell’s position that anyone looking to achieve something really special and something truly spectacular in the world – no matter what that might be – needs to deliberately practice for at least 10,000 hours to become a master in that field.
Interestingly enough, after Outliers achieved critical acclaim and significant success (topping that New York Times Bestseller List we mentioned above) a considerable amount of researchers came out and pushed back against the 10,000 hour rule.
Harvard professor and author of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman was one of the most vocal critics of Gladwell and his contention, stating that this “rule” was only half true.
Goleman illustrated this argument by stating that even if you put an average golfer on any golf course in the world and allowed them to play round after round for 10,000 hours they wouldn’t be able to achieve the kind of mastery that Gladwell promises – simply because they didn’t have information, coaches, or instruction on how to improve.
Goleman contends that “it’s impossible to know what we don’t know”, and that 10,000 hours of brute force isn’t anywhere near enough to achieve the kinds of breakthroughs you need to become a true master.
Gladwell himself has walked back the 10,000 hour rule a little bit in the last few years, agreeing that even if he played chess for 100 years in a row he’d never achieve the status of Grand Master. He does continue to contend that natural ability alone isn’t ever going to be enough to achieve true mystery, and that those that “grind” without natural ability or talent will always get much closer to mastery than those that try and skate by on their gifts.
Gladwell has a very tough time trying to explain the excellence certain athletes have in the world of athletics, where the body that individuals have been born with, the underlying genetics, and their natural athleticism clearly give some individuals and edge and advantage over others.
Sure, there are plenty of athletes that have been able to overcome significant athletic handicaps for “talent droughts” to achieve mastery in a given sport – but the odds are definitely stacked in the favor of those with natural ability.
Tracking the Cultural Impact of Outliers
The second part of the book (a more condensed section of the book for sure) goes on to illustrate certain cultural legacies that persisted throughout a number of generations, directing how individuals make sense of the world around them even if those passing down these cultural legacies aren’t sure of why they continue to exist in the first place.
Those that love studying anthropology or just enjoy diving deeper into the many different cultures of our wonderful world are going to find significant then you in this section of the book. Gladwell touches on the “culture of honor” that exists in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States as well as the culture of patient problem-solving produced by groups throughout China that primarily focus on rice paddy work.
Gladwell also goes in to speak about how these deeply ingrained cultural aspects can lead to systemic failure that goes unchecked for years, if not decades. He spoke about how Korean airlines were particularly likely to have to deal with crashes and aircraft failure because of their rigid power structures that really stifled collaboration and lowered the safety ratings of those aircraft.
Critics Continue to Challenge Outliers
While many have sung the praises of Gladwell, not only for his depth of research but also for his clear writing and unique storytelling abilities, there are plenty of critics out there that feel Outliers is little more than smoke and mirrors.
Many of the most vocal critics find Outliers to be rather obvious, to be more anecdotal than anything else, and to be hyper focused on nurture versus nature – all while downplaying or (at times) degrading the idea of hard work, ambition, and ability and the roles that they play on the road to achieving true success.
These critics contend that Gladwell simply adds more obstacles on the road to success rather than showing how the truly successful achieve all that they set their minds to. These critics find Outliers to be an anti-motivating book, essentially telling people that if they weren’t born at the right place, at the right time, and the
right moment of history and to the right parents their odds of achieving true success are slim to none.
At the end of the day, there are plenty of powerful messages to take away from Outliers and it is certainly a book well worth looking into. The 10,000 Hour Rule alone is enough to motivate any truly success seeking individual to push themselves harder and more frequently – with deliberate focus and deliberate practice – to improve their odds of achieving success later down the line.