According to Wikipedia, an outlier “is an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data.” When you look at successful people from a distant, the general notion is that they got there through intelligence and ambition.
In his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, social commentator and journalist Malcolm Gladwell explains that success is much more complex and involves looking deeper into people’s lives and surroundings to see how they achieved success. Some of the other factors include their family, their birthplace, their generation, the month of their birth and cultural considerations.
Malcolm covered a lot in the book, but here are my quick takeaways:
Cutoff dates matter – The artificial cutoff dates for athletic or scholastic dates do matter. There is a distinct advantage to have a birthdate as close as possible to the cutoff date. In general, older children are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than their age group peers. The error is that in many cases, we confuse maturity with ability – and then compound these differences until adulthood. My son is an example of this. He is a second grader but he started kindergarten a year late because of his October birthdate. So he is at the older range of his class and in reality, there is as much as a 16 month range in ages across his entire second grade class.
10,000 hour rule – It takes a lot of time to become really proficient in anything, whether athletic, artistic or occupational skills like software programming or tax preparation. Studies have shown that there is a 10 year and/or 10,000 hour rule to reach this stage. For example, a pianist who practices 3 hours per day, 6 days per week will reach 10,000 hours in roughly 10 years.
IQ is just a threshold – High IQs are not necessarily a good predictor of success. However, there is a threshold where you need to be ‘smart enough’ to be able to succeed. As Malcolm states in his book, “being successful is about a lot more than IQ.”
Generational limitations – Success also depends on when you are born which drives when you reach adulthood. For example, to be born between 1900 and 1911 is demographically unlucky as you would have hit the most devastating events of the 20th century – the Great Depression and WWII – at the wrong times.
Meaningful work – Observing and participating in “meaningful work” as defined by autonomy, complexity and a correalation between effort and reward is critical to becoming successful.
Social heritance – According to Gladwell, “Cultural legacies are powerful forces” and they can persist generation after generation long after the social and demographic conditions that created them have passed. Gladwell told about a psychology study conducted by Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s around the culture of honor and violence. It turns out that there is a difference between young men from the Northern and Southern US respond to insults and which partially explains the higher rates of violence in the South.
7 errors – A typical accident involves 7 consecutive human errors. Gladwell examines airline crashes and it is very rare for a crash to be blamed on equipment, and the typical cause is human error. However, it is not just one human error but a series of small errors that contribute to an eventual catastrophic accident.
I thought the book was a great read and it brought up some interesting ideas. Check it these other links about Malcolm and watch the video from Barnes and Noble below:
- Malcolm Gladwell’s blog
- Late Bloomers – article by Malcolm Gladwell in October 2008 issue of The New Yorker
- Culture of Honor – The Psychology of Violence in the South, this is the book by Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett that was referenced in Outliers