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Is Gladwell Right About What’s Most Likely to Make You Successful?

It took me awhile to finally decide to write this post as it runs against the tide of most readers’ opinions. And many feel strongly as I discovered at dinner last night with friends, but here goes. Outliers purports to reveal the real reason some people — like Bill Joy, the Beatles and Bill Gates— are successful. Yet what Malcolm Gladwell finds is, as Michiko Kakutani notes, “little more than common sense” – except when he draws conclusions about what’s most important for success.

I admit that my summary of the book is not as fascinating or sticky as the

 vignettes in it, yet see if Gladwell’s conclusions surprise you:

1. Talent alone is not enough to ensure success.

2. Opportunity, hard work, timing and luck are also essential.

3. Poor children are less likely to succeed than those raised in rich or middle-class families.

4. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to become successful. 

The first three seem blindingly obvious yet I disagree about what’s most important. And he over-generalizes. While it’s also obvious that mastery improves one’s chance for success, his conclusion that there’s a magic amount of practice time cannot be substantiated by the studies, interviews (Bill Joy, for example) and stories he offers.

As well, luck and timing may trump his  “10,000 rule,” Hundreds of garage bands that practiced as much and at the time as The Beatles, for example, did not become famously successful.

As Isaac Chotiner concludes, Gladwell “dislikes attributing individual accomplishment to the accomplishing individuals. He has set out to prove that people with social advantages do better than people without social advantages, and so the really wise thing for society to do is to arrange for more advantages for more people.”  In fact Gladwell never really defines success.

Here’s my problem. He plays up the power of cultural background, timing and economic class and downplays the role in success of talent and perseverance.

They are key factors in work, love, fame, wealth and, well, all that we may enjoy in life – or not. 

So too, are attractivenesscharisma, willpower, fortitude, and the ability to lead, evoke trust and attract support. But other authors have pointed that out, some with a less fascinating thread of stories than Gladwell’s book to support these universal truths.  And that may be the core talent that’s made him successful. 

Since his diligent research and writing has probably taken at least 10,000 hours his conclusion is self-evident – for him. As any author will admit, that’s an extraordinary talent to hone however one “achieves” success at it. And Gladwell always stirs thinking and conversation – a great thing.

Yet, in this transient, time-starved world where increasingly we can find the right people with whom to practice and collaborate, my bet for success is …

• on those who steadfastly hone their singular talent …

• often in the company of compatible colleagues

• with whom they achieve greater success than they could alone …

• and can savor their shared success together.

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  1. Posted January 29, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I think Gladwell has captured some of the minimum typical requirements for success.

    There’s a lot of luck involved too. I think Nassim Nicholas Taleb has the other piece of the puzzle with his “black swans”.

    Between the two of them you get the whole picture.

  2. Posted January 29, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Jeremy, some of the same factors are discussed in both books, yet I find more credible the research and thinking that buttresses Taleb’s emphasis on which are more important. BTW, I wrote about them both here

    And your meaty blog, Lichtman has been a source of inspiration to this newbie blogger who shares your appreciation for Chris Brogan.

  3. Maxine Karchie
    Posted February 1, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    As always, you have written a piece that makes me think, reflect and ponder, but I tend to agree with your
    bets for Success :
    • on those who steadfastly hone their singular talent …

    • often in the company of compatible colleagues…

    • with whom they achieve greater success than they could alone …

    • and can savor their shared success together.

    Be safe, well and happy,

  4. Posted February 2, 2009 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    All of these attributes mentioned are essential for success. However, the most important factor that is behind all of the others is the prior lives that we all have experienced. In the future those people who reject this deep experience will be very unhealthy and will search for someone who can help them integrate their prior life experiences with their present lives.

  5. Posted February 2, 2009 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    How astute. Not “just” prior lives but the prior situation as we face each new interaction.

    Being “primed” by multiple, difficult situations to be wary in the next is an inescapable reaction in our primitive triune brain. It takes an enormous effort to be open and present in the moment, to see what is happening in this situation (not the past ones) and to look for a sweet spot of mutual benefit where you might be supportive of each other – George Leonard believes this is a sign of mastery in ones life….

    It may not take 10,000 hours to learn it yet some researchers have found (re Daniel Goleman, et al) that monks and others who have meditated 10,000 hours (how ironic it is the same number as Gladwell cited) are considerably less reactionary to negative stimuli in a situation.

  6. Posted February 4, 2009 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    Hi Kare,

    Nice post. With regards to Gladwell mentioning that “Poor children are less likely to succeed than those raised in rich or middle-class families” I wonder how Charlie Chaplin fits the bill? I don’t know whether he engaged in his pantomime skills for 10,000 hours or not, he porobably did. But Gladwell seems to be saying that you need 10k hours PLUS those other factors that you mentioned above.

    However, Chaplin was poor. He didn’t start earning money until he was older and working for Fred Karno in the U.K. So perhaps one can conclude that there are exceptions to the rule? And perhaps there are many other exceptions too?

    And is the 10,000 to be a master or just successful? Did Macauly Culkin put in 10,000 on film sets before become famous? Today’s reality TV “stars” certainly didn’t put in this amount of time and some of them have gone on to cash in on their initial fame.

  7. Posted February 4, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece, and I agree this book is not as compelling or sticky as, say, the Tipping Point. Most of the factors gladwell brings up (middle to upper middle class upbringing=better chances of success) are “blindingly obvious.” I do find his argument about being born at the right time interesting–the perfect year to be born for the PC revolution (Gates, Jobs, etc) would be 1955 (54 or 56 is ok too) for instance. But of course, the people had to be brilliant, driven AND lucky too, so not sure where this is going as far as any new thinking. I think what Gladwell does do well is weave together some beautifully written stories into a nice tapestry and raise issues that readers like us love to ponder–and that’s ok. But to think of this as breakthrough thinking is a stretch.

  8. Posted February 4, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Mark – he does do extraordinarily well in weaving stories together yet when they are not buttressed by relevant research we, as readers, are “primed” to agree with his conclusions. Reading above I pinch myself to be so lucky as to have such thoughtful, independent-thinking readers. Thank you

  9. Posted February 8, 2009 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Kare, I also agree that the statement of 10,000 hrs of practice is over-generalized. I think that it’s simply too hard to substantiate this “fact” that Gladwell presents. I have to say that you were spot on with you other suggestions of success drivers: “attractiveness, charisma, willpower, fortitude, and the ability to lead, evoke trust and attract support.” I would also draw upon your most recent post about making it through the tough times, in that success is largely determined, and more likely, if your working towards your goals along side an equally motivated and driven person.


  10. Posted February 9, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Yes older-than-your-years Josh, I couldn’t have put it better re “an equally motivated and driven person.”

    The high art for our most bountiful future is being wise in choosing those partners
    for all parts of our lives, especially those with whom we can share a single and singular goal,
    bring different talents, temperament and resources to the table
    (thus testing our capacity to work well with someone who does not act “right” – like us).

  11. Posted February 14, 2009 at 6:37 am | Permalink


    Thanks for a very thoughtful set of comments about Outliers. I do believe you are correct to say that the ideas should not be accepted unchallenged. Like many things around us, this is a story of trends and probabilities. There is no exact science that we can develop at this point that describes everything perfectly.

    I tend to agree with your challenge of the 10,000 hour rule, for example. I have heard it said that one can become exceedingly knowledgeable about many things with 1,000 hours of study. One thousand hours for you and I as newbie bloggers will leave us much more talented than we were at hour five. The same is true for learning to drive a car, learning a foreign language, or playing softball.

    I do believe that Gladwell is right about building upon successions of advantage. Small advantages can grow into large advantages. As a former venture capitalist, for example, I did some research on the probability of someone getting financing from a venture capital company. The odds are small that you will get any attention at all, perhaps one in 100 at the time. But if you could get attention to your idea, the investor began to help you think it through and your odds went to one in five. Similar numbers apply to getting your book published or even finding the perfect date with an on-line profile.

    In my own personal life, I can see much of the trend that Gladwell discusses. People often ask me how I got from being a minority kid from a low income family in a steel town to the point of being visible to the President of the United States and appointed to be Superintendent of the United States Mint Philadelphia, the world’s largest Mint.

    I can assure you that I did not start my youth with that as an aspiration. However, after a couple close scrapes with death, I did know that I did not want to be a steelworker all of my life. I had above average academic skills and was named a National Achievement Scholar by National Merit Corporation. That lead to a degree in engineering from Purdue University, which lead to sharing an office with an engineer who worked on a taskforce doing operations research, sort of a combination of engineering, operational planning, and finance in a refinery. When he was temporarily moved to fill another critical role, I was assigned to step up to fill in for him because we had become friends and I had been interested in what he was doing.

    We discovered that I had a talent for this stuff and I was nominated to fill a position as a financial analyst in a new division that was being formed to train some oil people in understanding non-oil related business as a possible diversification strategy. I assumed a managerial role and officer title in a very small subsidiary of a very large corporation. This created eventually an opportunity to back up my trial and error education in business by going to a little school down the street, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

    So when the head of the search team looking to fill the position of the President’s appointee to Superintendent of the United States Mint Philadelphia came to town, he and his team talked with engineers, and oil company executives, and bar association chancellors, and bankers, and the Dean of Wharton. One of the things they asked was if they knew any minority person who might be a good candidate for them to interview since the President wanted to make some non-traditional appointments of minorities.

    I was not on the top of anyone’s list, but I was on everyone’s list. That got me the first interview. And that interview was much like the eye to eye meeting with a venture capitalist or the endorsement of a literary agent for your book. It changed my odds.

    And interestingly enough, my advantage was I had been a steel worker as a kid. I had worked on the bottom rung as a laborer in exactly the same type of heavy industrial environment as the Mint. My ultimate advantage was the disadvantage that got me started on my course of self-improvement.

    Surely there is much more detail to how finally getting noticed led to my selection, nomination and ultimate Senate confirmation to become the 16th Superintendent, the youngest in the history of the United States and the first African American. Yet, the point is clear to me that my life correlates exactly to Gladwell’s hypothesis. I worked hard in one way or another every day of my life, but working hard was not sufficient to make me step into a small place in history. Everyone around me worked hard.

    Shallie Bey
    Smarter Small Business Blog

  12. Posted February 14, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Your comment was so helpful to me I am going to visit your blog – kudos re becoming the Superintendent + I’ll bet there are many other related life stories along the way. I am just curious about your next new, new thing.

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