Outliers (which I reviewed recently) has forced me to change a lot of what I consider success, and how I’m going about approaching it. So, I’ve got a question for you: Are you in the right place?
I picked up Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success during the Christmas season from the HMV that’s next door to my store in the mall. It happened to be on sale, and I’d heard some decent reviews – I didn’t know what I was getting into, though. It’s not an overstatement to say that Outliers has changed something fundamental in how I do my work, what I see as my advantages, and where the idea of success has totally fallen down around my ears.
Let me explain.
The book is glibly subtitled “The Story of Success” but it’s really not. It’s the story of people who have taken opportunity where they saw it, and identified more accurately their strengths and interests, compared to the rest of us. I have to assume that this is either Gladwell’s summation of what success is, or that the latter simply didn’t fit on a cover as well. Either way, by about fifty pages in, my head had been blown clean off my shoulders about four times.
The first noggin knocker came with the formula the book would follow; identify a seemingly privileged set of people, or an individual, and examine the individual’s roots. Find out what it was that put this group or person where they are, and totally remove the shiny pedestal from their feet. This has helped me see celebrities in a new light, one that thankfully makes them more human.
The second came from Gladwell’s style. He’s a journalist, and it shows, but he’s also a phenomenal storyteller. As a writer myself, I’m always really interested in how authors compose their ideas, and draw the reader through the story as if by way of treasure map. By the time I had figured out where the X was on Malcolm’s map, I was only twenty pages in – but still, the book didn’t get boring, and that’s all about presentation.
The third brain buster was the shear weight of information. From the beginning of the first chapter, where Gladwell dissects the birthdays of hockey players, right up to the last few pages where he tells the story of a Jamaican woman who moved to Britain for love of knowledge (arguably the best story in the book), the statistical density is high. It speaks to the power of Gladwell’s writing, as well, that this barely becomes overwhelming, and that it’s so understandable.
The one that really baked my noodle, however, and that’s changed my life approach in certain respects, was one really simple idea, the one that takes a page to explain, but requires Gladwell to make universally accessible: Your personal history, everything from the beginning of the universe until now that went into the making of the You that you are, provides you with the infinite capacity for wealth, success, the realization of all your dreams, and total, utter fulfilment in whatever flavour you can conjure. It requires only that you identify where you need to be for your highest good, and that you act on that highest good without hesitation, without compromise, and without any thought to how much work you’ll need to do.
There really is no such thing as an overnight success, but you can become one, if you find your highest good and work yourself to every bone you’ve got to get there. Because once you’re there, you can change the world – not just for yourself, but if you do it right and well, for everyone after you.
The people, places and organizations Gladwell has studied in this book: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Chris Langan, Joe Flom, the city of Harlan, Kentucky, Korean Air, rice paddy farmers in China, and these are just a sample. These people, places and organizations build on each other toward that inevitable truth. Your hard work is not enough to make you an outlier. But your hard work at something your entire chronology an ecology have uniquely prepared you for can shift the very earth you walk on and turn your touch to a golden blessing – if you do it right.
By the time Gladwell tells the story of Daisy Nation and her twin daughters in the final chapter, he has taught an entirely new world view, one that prepares the reader to receive the story, which he relates in a very flat, biographical way for portions, with the light of the Outlier on it, and make unwritten connections proving the concept in a beautiful manner.
I would buy this book again. I’d buy it for friends. I’d buy it for you, if you haven’t read it (if I had the cash to spare) – or I’ll lend you mine if you’re in town and can convince me it’ll make its way back to me in one piece. Or, if you want, you can also go buy yourself a copy here because this is definitely a book that’s worth having, and coming back to again whenever you’re feeling downtrodden on the road to success.
Photo by me!
How do you approach big problems? You know, the ones you feel – at first glimpse – can never be solved? After you ge over the shock, how do you go about tearing down the mountain? On the other hand, what do you do when confronted with a big project at work? Perhaps liaising with a Fortune 100 company at the C-level to get a contract? Do you treat it differently than working with a local entrepreneur?
Of course you do. You have to. Don’t you?
Apparently, Berkeley High might be cutting out its science labs in order that the massive ethnic gap in its students grades might be levelled. I think these teachers are missing something. The move comes with the aim of diverting resources toward helping “underachieving” students get up to snuff; their studies say that black and latino students are doing poorly, and the science labs only benefit white students. I can’t help but wonder if this is an indication of educational idiocy, or if they’re playing to their audience. It’s hard to tell until the work gets done.
But we’re used to bureaucracy doing this sort of thing. It feels external. Often, we’re unaware of treating things differently because of size, because the prejudice is so ingrained it’s mental furniture. If you go shopping for a TV, you probably want a big one, the biggest you can afford, right? Who cares that if you’re sitting six feet away, a 37″ screen is just on the high end of useful for viewing – that 60″ plasma just screams take me home.
It doesn’t always work in a good or productive manner, but we tend to treat anything bigger than our estimates as better when it’s a perceived benefit, and worse when it’s a perceived threat. I should know – I’m 6’2″ tall and fairly large. My friends treat me as localized security, because without more than five seconds exposure (I’m the goofiest person I know, most days) on the face of it, I look big and threatening. Useful? No. Clothes cost half again as much as they do for anyone else, I hit my head on everything including some doorframes depending on my shoes, and I’m vastly out of shape. Still think being 6’2″ and having a football player’s frame is better than whatever shape you’re in?
As a proving converse argument, I had a friend in school who was 5’10” tall and less than a hundred pounds – and still more threatening than me. Is scale still impressive, putting these descriptions side by side?
One of the things we need to be able to do to combat these clouding assumptions is change our paradigm away from immediate impression toward utility. Often these are one and the same, but in the ever-more-convoluted twenty-first century, we can no longer afford to let first impressions count for anything if we’re given evidence the impression was imperfect. Minds are like parachutes, they work better when we let them open.
Another thing we need to get better at is making sure we’re aware of where scale is of any benefit. I’ve got less than three hundred people following me on Twitter, for example, but those I’ve connected with (and if you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re one of them and know where to find me there) are awesome people, well worth following – and well worth promoting on my part as well. Does this make my stream less valuable to the world than @Scobleizer‘s constant ReTweet storms?
If the small fish is connected to the right big fish, does the small fish need to grow?
Photo by jurvetson