Outliers and Factors of Success

21 01 2013

OutliersLast year I read a remarkable book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  I am stunned by the results of Gladwell’s investigation into the hidden causes of success.  It is one of the most fascinating and upsetting books I’ve read in a long time.  Upsetting in a good sense, that is.  It upsets commonly cherished ideas about how people attain success in life.

In his book The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, M. Scott Peck argues that one of the characteristics and problems of our age is what he calls simplism.  Simplistic thinking fails to take into account that life is complex.  There are many variables that make up the people we live with and the challenges of our time.  The rub is that the variables are not always apparent.  It takes probing, time, patience and labor, for thinking is work.  Really.

The strength of Gladwell’s work is the way he demonstrates that, for example, 1) Bill Gates was not just a computer genius who came on the scene in the 1970’s and through sheer brilliance became the richest living American, 2) Asians aren’t necessarily “better” at math than Westerners but are more patient and their numbers nomenclature more user-friendly, and 3) that some recent airline disasters have more to do with overarching cultural distinctions vis-à-vis authority and power distance rather than simple “pilot error.”

I’m not writing today’s post as a spoiler for Gladwell’s book.  You owe it to yourself to get your hands on it and read carefully.  When I finished the book, I was struck with the reality that I am far too quick to pass judgment on the issues of the day, on why some fail and some succeed, even on theological issues—the area that I’ve given the most attention to since the early 1980’s.  Rarely are all the facts and evidence on the surface.

We are all composites of the influences and environments in which we were raised and in which we now spend our lives.  We are not simply our genetic makeup, products of our DNA.  More often than not, there are hidden factors that figure into the success of some, the failure of others.  Timing often figures in as much as raw ability.  We can thank Malcolm Gladwell and those like him (Scott Peck, Geoff Colvin, etc.) for digging deeper and giving us the full picture.

Here are a few brainteasers with which to bait yourself:

  • What cultural and economic tides are coming in right now that I can make the most of?  In other words, can I discern the signs  and trends of the times?  My friend Christopher Hopper has written extensively on the emerging wave of self-publishing.  You can read about that here.  It most certainly will be a force in the literary world in the days to come.  But it needed a level playing field, courtesy of the World Wide Web, to function and in which to be established.
  • What current politically hot issue engages me the most and do I have solid, consistent thinking and evidence to support my position?  Democrats routinely chide pro-life evangelicals for being oxymoronic—at once militantly anti-abortion and also vehemently pro-war (or pro-death penalty).  Are the criticisms valid?
  • Am I patient enough to thoroughly research problems and find meaningful solutions? Peck again.  You must be patient and resist the urge for simplistic, easy answers.  Thinking is work.  Are you up to it?

Digest Gladwell’s book.  It is a very important contribution!

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6 responses

21 01 2013
David Kanigan

What a terrific trailer you have teased us with…spoil away pal. Give us the punch line…

21 01 2013
Christian Fahey

Thank you, Dave. Interesting metric in Gladwell’s work is the presence of opportunities in many success cases. Opportunity is largely out of one’s hands but making the most of them (in Gates’s case, hopping public transit in the very early morning hours to hone his programming skills in downtown Seattle on a state-of-the-art computer to which he had access and made time for. Thanks for reading!

21 01 2013
David Kanigan

Interesting. I’ll need to pick up the book. Thanks Christian.

21 01 2013
Christian Fahey

You’ll be fascinated and glad you did. Enjoy!

21 01 2013
Christopher Hopper

This is so good, Christian. Love the brainteasers; these are blog post fodder initiators for those of us needing daily inspiration. Passing along.

21 01 2013
Christian Fahey

Thank you, Christopher. Gladwell’s is a fascinating read and his method for getting to the bottom of things–in this case, success–is work heavy on the front end but yields valuable clues at the close. I’m also struck by the need for mathematical literacy–numeracy–in accounting for all the variables in these kinds of studies (shout out to John Allen Paulos). When the math is accounted for, the picture becomes mighty clear. Kindred book to this is “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. Math again and a reaffirmation of the amount of sheer time and “deliberate practice” that yields genius, whether Mozart, the Beatles or Tiger Woods. Thanks for reading and passing along!

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