IQ + EQ + group support = outlier

Published by rudy Date posted on December 15, 2008

I am a self-confessed fan of Malcolm Gladwell, author of the international bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink. He is an exceptional journalist who writes for The New Yorker, and was formerly a business and science reporter at the The Washington Post. His celebrity status pushed Fast Company to label him “a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud.”

Let’s do a quick review. Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point because he was enthralled by the abrupt plunge of the dreaded crime rate in New York City. That enthrallment cultivated a special curiosity about the big idea behind outbreaks and the processes that go with such disruptions. It focused on individuals and their power to alter societal norms and behaviors. Blink, on the other hand, was largely influenced by Gladwell’s heightened fixation on the way people instantaneously make up their minds about other people without the benefit of a thorough investigation and analysis of facts and figures. In both international bestsellers, he handled a feat that has escaped hundreds of others — to make social science charming and sexy to the hoi polloi.

Now comes Outliers. I was really looking forward to getting a hold of his third offering when lo and behold comes a copy sent by a friend and colleague, Joy Buensalido, during my birthday week last month. Thanks to Joy and National Bookstore.

Outliers, Gladwell confided, was born out of a frustration he experienced with the way the careers of really successful people — Bill Gates, Mozart, the Beatles and some music legends and stars, among others — are told. Looking at their stories, he was pushed to ask the question, “Are they really smart or are they really ambitious?” Look around you, he suggested, and there are lots of people who are really smart and really ambitious, but they aren’t worth $60 billion. This realization gave him a whack on the side of his head, recognizing that his concept of success was indeed rough and ready, and that there was an opportunity for mining more insights and forming a more credible, acceptable and enlightened explanation.

Coming from such recognition, Gladwell posed a confrontational inquiry — why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? By asking the question, he cast aspersion and disputed the treasured principle of the “self-made man.” He asserted that outliers don’t arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent. “They are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot,” he emphasized.

Outliers not only made an effort to portray the lives of successful people, but to likewise narrate their stories in a manner that is unpredictable. Gladwell compiled persuasive cases of how successful people rise on a wave of rewards and benefits, and commented in interviews that some were deserved, some were not, some were earned, and some were just plain lucky.

In evaluating people’s success stories, Gladwell firmly believes that you have to go beyond the individual characteristics, habits and personality traits of those involved. You have to get indicators from other factors that impact on an their persona — their culture, the community they grew up in, the family they came from and the generation they were born in. Gladwell suggested metaphorically looking not just at the tall trees but also at the forest where these tall trees thrive.

To illustrate this point, he cited the following examples. They may sound trivial, but as he claimed, they are supported by hard evidence: first is that the astounding number of the most powerful and successful corporate lawyers in New York City have almost the exact, same biography. They are all Jewish men, born in the Bronx or Brooklyn in the mid-1930s to immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry. Faced with this data you can’t help but ask the question, what is it about being Jewish, being part of the generation born in the Depression and having parents who worked in the garment business that might have something to do with turning someone into a really, really successful lawyer?

Other amazing details Gladwell expounded on included the following: most pro hockey players in the world were born in January, February and March; pilots’ records of crashing are closely linked to their cultural backgrounds; there’s a magic year to be born if you want to be a software entrepreneur, and another magic year to be born if you want to be really rich; Asian kids are masters in mathematics and this phenomenon is largely due to the centuries-old culture of rice farming and eating in this region. Following are bullets of some other nuggets of wisdom from Gladwell on the outliers:

• Outliers become outliers not just because of their own efforts. They become such because of contributions from many different people and many different circumstances. Developing outliers is a group project, and society has power over who will make it.

• Consider the 10,000-hour rule. This is the idea that you have to practice something for 10,000 hours to master it. That’s about 10 years of practice. So, mastery is impossible without an investment of 10 years, which combats the idea that talent is something you have or you don’t. It takes investment to achieve mastery. That’s hard to do. Just think how hard it would be to be a poor kid, if you have to work a part-time job when you get home from school. When are you going to find time for those 10,000 hours?

• To guarantee success, you have to have the chance to put in your 10,000 hours. You have to come from a tradition of meaningful work, where there’s a connection between effort and reward and you take joy from doing complex tasks. You have to come from a culture that supports those ideas.

• Success in the 21st century is less about sheer intelligence and more about collaboration and hard work to get to the level of mastery in a topic (which he says typically takes 10,000 hours).  Bill Gates was able to get to 10,000 hours while in school in Seattle due to incredibly fortunate concurrences: for example, his private school could fund a sophisticated computer in their computer club, and the fact that he lived close to the University of Washington, where he could use an even more sophisticated computer. Gladwell conceded that Gates is obviously brilliant, but noted that many other brilliant youths never had the chance to become computer stars of Gates’ magnitude because they didn’t have access to these sophisticated computers. Our romantic notion of the genius might be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight. Many “geniuses” are not born great but have the capacity to learn from others and learn from failures along the way.

• Social networks (beyond mere brilliance) are one of the keys to success. An advocate of the importance of social capital, Gladwell showed how lifetime earnings are more clearly a function of social interconnections than of levels of education.

• Institutions can provide success at the collective level, but there’s a limited amount that parents and individuals can do to influence the institutions. Take education. It turns out that summer vacation is a massive disadvantage for poorer kids. Richer kids get a lot of help over the summer. Their homes are filled with books and things that advance their knowledge; they go to camp and have all these other activities. But a poor family can’t do that. To improve that, we as a society would have to provide it in the first place. During the school year, poor kids actually outlearn richer kids. Then they stall over the summer.

•  In times of distress, lots of very able people get thwarted. Gladwell was very interested in the role that the generation you were born in plays. He found out that the best year to be born in the 20th century was 1935. For one thing, it was a small generation, for obvious reasons. Not a lot of families wanted to have kids during the Great Depression. But it’s not a bad thing to grow up in a depression, it’s just a bad time to be looking for a job.

Personally, I believe outliers are a byproduct of several elements — great intelligence, high emotional quotient and sustained support from family, friends and the social networks you weave yourself into. –Bong Osorio, Philippine Star

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E-mail bongo@vasia.com or bong_osorio@abs-cbn.com for comments, questions and suggestions. Thank you for communicating.

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