3 Lessons from ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’

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Malcolm Gladwell is a famous author who has published some of the world’s best business and personal development books. In Outliers, Gladwell examines the making of the world’s brightest and most successful people from Bill Gates to the Beatles.

Gladwell  defines an outlier as a person so far from the ordinary that they ‘don’t fit into our normal understanding of achievement’. Outliers is a breakdown of what makes these people so extraordinary. Here are three important lessons to take away from this book:

Lesson 1: Opportunity is Exponential

Gladwell explains that people are quick to overlook the multitude of opportunities and hidden advantages that enable ‘outliers’ to perform above and beyond everyone else.

We often attribute success to a rare collection of individual qualities – natural talent, extreme motivation and hard work. Instead, Gladwell reveals how opportunity plays a significant role in the lives of  successful and competitive hockey players. Looking at a roster for the 2007 Canadian youth hockey team, a psychologist noticed that an overwhelming  number of players were born in the first three months of each year – January, February or March. Conversely, very few players were born in the last three months of the year, with the same pattern appearing in all of the other hockey teams.

Gladwell provides a simple explanation for this strange phenomenon, attributing this to the better players receiving more opportunities. In many sporting teams,  the cutoff age for a class is the 1st of January. With this in mind, Gladwell reveals that the strength and maturity of children between someone who had just turned 10 and someone who is almost 11 years old is notably different. Hence, more mature players have a natural advantage over their younger counterparts and are more likely to catch the eye of talent scouts.

From there, they are promoted to better teams, receive better coaching and are propelled to work harder than their younger peers. By the time they mature, a pattern emerges –  the best players are born on days that are  close to the cutoff date. Gladwell also highlights similar trends which exist in sports that use this same method of selection such as baseball in the US to soccer in  Europe.

What entrepreneurs can learn

Although luck may sometimes play  a huge role in providing opportunities, it is important to understand that these people continuously pursued new opportunities despite being given an initial head start.

What you may not have yet realised, is that anyone can give themselves a head start by propelling themselves ahead. Through getting started, working harder or thinking a little differently, you can improve your abilities and find new opportunities awaiting you, rather than waiting for them to come by – which may rarely happen.

Similar to how the better hockey players were able to gain access to improved coaching, entrepreneurs should constantly pursue new opportunities such as joining startup accelerators or finding new mentors, each entrepreneur has the capabilities of uncovering a range of new opportunities for themselves through consistent and purposeful effort.

Although many extraordinary people have had streaks of fortune, there’s no reason why you can’t beat the odds by actively pursuing opportunities!

Lesson 2: 10,000 Hour Rule

Gladwell has popularised the 10,000 hour rule in recent years through examining some of the world’s foremost experts including Wolfgang Mozart, The Beatles and Bill Gates.

Gladwell concludes that natural talent indeed exists and all extraordinary people have copious amounts of it. However, Gladwell also argues that innate talent would never have enabled these people to become extraordinary without the enormous  amounts of practice they have invested

Studies show that no expert rises to the top without a lot of practice, in fact, at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. After investigations, Gladwell concludes 10,000 hours of practice as being necessary for one to become an expert – and even more to become an outlier.

Everyone knows Mozart for composing his first masterpiece at age 21. However, behind the scenes, Mozart actually began picking at the harpsichord since age three and playing short pieces from the age of four. In fact, he had already composed concertos for ten years before he produced his first successful piece.

Mozart was able to dedicate over 10,000 hours to mastering the piano because his parents had given him these unusual opportunities to become a musician.

In a similar way, Gladwell recounts the Beatles’ journey in 1960s Germany. The Beatles were first seen performing by a club owner and were invited to play in Hamburg. The Beatles were paid poorly and played 8 hours long sets at seven days a week. However, when the Beatles finally begun experiencing success in 1964 – they had played live performances approximately twelve hundred times (more than most bands today ever play live in their lifetimes).

A more relatable story for entrepreneurs is that of Bill Gates, a person often associated with the terms ‘natural genius’ and ‘programming prodigy’. Bill Gates attended a private high school in Seattle which owned a time sharing computer. At that time, most schools did not have computer clubs! A time sharing computer made programming much faster and more efficient – such a computer was described as being the difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess.

Later, Gates was able to spend even more time programming when he received an internship at a tech company and spent a semester away from school. This allowed Gates to accumulate thousands of hours of programming under his belt before the PC revolution came by, positioning him with an incredible advantage.

By the time he started Microsoft, Gladwell states that ‘he was way past ten thousand hours’.

What entrepreneurs can learn

You’ve probably heard of ‘hard work’ a thousand times, but to become an expert you really have to put in the 10,000 hours of work – deliberate work. That is equivalent to full time and learning at 40 hours a week for 5 years! Even that doesn’t guarantee you to become an outlier, it just makes you an expert at something. Many entrepreneurs are chasing a dream and and in order to succeed, they must persevere through tough times to realise their ambitions.

Lesson 3: IQ Doesn’t Equal Success

Lewis Terman, a psychology professor, conducted a study of children’s IQs on their later lives and achievements. He sought out young geniuses with an extremely high IQ of 150 or higher and followed the lives of these 1500 children.

Gladwell recounts Terman hypothesising that these children would grow up to become the world’s greatest people such as Nobel laureates, governors, entrepreneurs and artists.

However, Gladwell points out that Terman was infact wrong about his hypothesis, invalidating the idea that genius equals success.

Although high IQs do have a correlation to high achievement, the studies show that a direct relationship disappears once a person’s IQ is above 120. We often believe that smarter is better and often don’t consider that this correlation disappears above a certain threshold

Gladwell, further uses an analogy to allow readers to better understand this – “basketball players have to be tall but a player who is 6’8” is not necessarily better than a player who is 6’5”. Once they are tall enough, other characteristics begin to make a larger difference – speed, agility and coping under pressure.

Gladwell then guides us to a different type of intelligence testing. He explains that IQ tests require participants to converge in their thinking – selecting one solution from several options. ‘Divergence’ testing, on the other hand requires participants to be more creative with their thinking, for example asking participants to list all of the uses he or she can think of for a brick and a bed sheet. In the exam, students with the highest IQs came up with the least number of solutions whilst the students with lower IQs demonstrated versatility and creativity with their responses. Here, Gladwell highlights that regardless of whether you are ‘naturally intelligent’ or not, there are many other factors which will determine your future success.

Surprisingly, Terman’s child geniuses did not grow up to fulfill his hypothesis. Most of them lived normal middle-class lives and none of them became particularly famous for anything. Some became fairly successful, but an equal number were not. Surprisingly, two children that Terman rejected from their study due to IQs that were too low, went on to win Nobel prizes!

What entrepreneurs can learn

We can learn that being born a genius doesn’t really say anything about your success. In fact, many entrepreneurs have particularly low IQs and have gone on to be successful beyond doubt. This illustrates that other factors come into play – practical intelligence, entitlement, determination and upbringing. You don’t need to be the smartest in the room to be a successful entrepreneur, instead you need factors such as practical intelligence – which enables you to assemble the right people around you to build your vision.

Summary

After realising the huge role that opportunity and hard work play in one’s success, are more you excited to get moving? Well it’s time for you to reflect upon Gladwell’s revelations and more importantly, apply what you learn to your life. Maybe it’s time for you to go chase that next opportunity?

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