Required Reading: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

As your Chancellor, from time to time I offer book reviews. And most of my reviews are really book recommendations. In other words, I don’t write a review unless it’s a book I think you would find worthwhile.

With Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, we reach another level: beyond review or even recommendation.

It’s a Requirement.

You really need to read this book. I downloaded it last week through Audible and listened to it while doing some work around the house and yard. It’s absolutely riveting.

Gladwell’s subtitle for the book is, “The Story of Success.” His aim is to look at wildly successful people and to evaluate what sets them apart…what makes them “outliers.”

He disappoints the rugged individualist by showing how cultural history and accidents of birth (even the month of the year we are born) play huge roles in our opportunities for success.

And with his elucidation of the 10,000 hour rule, he dispels the myth that there is such a thing as a “natural talent” that can be extraordinarily successful without sustained practice and skill development.

Along the way, Gladwell provides surprising, interesting (and compelling) answers to perplexing questions, such as:

  • Why are Asians so much better at math than westerners are?
  • Why did Korean Airlines have such an abysmal safety record?
  • Why were the mountains of Kentucky home to so many notorious family feuds?
  • Why do so many of the most successful corporate lawyers in New York City have amazingly similar biographies (born in the 1930s to Jewish parents who worked in the garment industry) and how did those factors contribute to their success?

Outliers is both humbling and motivating. It’s humbling because it reminds all of us that for any success we have, we can trust that factors and background beyond our control (and perhaps even seemingly random, like the month in which we were born), have played a role. And it’s motivating because the 10,000-hour rule emphasizes that hard work is an indispensable ingredient for success, though it offers no guarantees.

Gladwell is a fantastic storyteller, as he demonstrated in The Tipping Point and Blink, both previously reviewed (or rather recommended) here. Any of his books would make excellent Christmas presents.

By definition, the vast majority of us won’t be outliers. But everyone reading this post has access to a computer with power far beyond what Bill Gates had as junior high school kid in 1968. He and Steve Jobs were born at the right time, and had extraordinary access to computers as youngsters that enabled them to put in their 10,000 hours and be in position to take advantage of (and help create) the personal computer revolution. But because of the legacy they have left, we have amazing opportunities our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.

In the scope of human history, we’re all outliers. Based on our SMUG enrollment figures, it’s highly likely that within 24 hours of this post being published it will have been read by at least one person on virtually every continent except Antarctica.

Fifty years ago, no one had that kind of power – not even the richest or most powerful rulers on earth.

But today, if you’re reading this post, you do.

I’m not suggesting that you spend 10,000 hours learning and practicing social media skills. But in just a few minutes a day you can work through the entire SMUG curriculum, taking advantage of the Jobs/Gates computer revolution, the Internet and Google to develop a whole new set of skills that you can use practically in your work and in your avocational pursuits.

I hope you will make becoming proficient in social media one of your New Year’s resolutions. (And for tips on keeping your resolutions, see this post.) If SMUG can help in your learning, I’d be honored to have that opportunity.

But meanwhile, get Outliers and read it. It will change the way think about success and its causes.

Update 12/29/08: Seth Godin has a thoughtful take on the 10,000 hour rule and its application in newer or niche markets.

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