Posts Tagged ‘Outliers’


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Dear Readers,

You know, a while back, I was supposed to write a series on Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers?

Well, I hope you didn’t forget. I did. And, the next two chapters I am critiquing didn’t make it any better.

As I am sure you have probably finished the book by now, I can only hope you will share your opinions with me…or roll your eyes in annoyance (as I did).

Gladwell names 3 things as contributing factors for Joe Flom’s success: 

  • Being Jewish
  • Luck
  • Meaningful work

Essentially, Gladwell has framed these ideas in context to his past chapters on a sense of entitlement, birth year and the 10,000 hour rule. In short, Mr. Flom was able to capitalize on the discrimination he faced by “white shoe” law firms in the 1950s and ’60s. As such,  a typical (Jewish) lawyer at that time would be forced to work for a “smaller, second-rate, upstart law firm on a rung below the big names downtown” or if they went into business for themselves, they took whatever came through the door.

This setback primes a young lawyer, like Mr. Flom to do work that the big name law firms deemed unfit to perform. What sort of work?  Primarily, litigation and proxy fights. I could go on and cite more (boring) facts that make Gladwell’s case, but I won’t. To summarize, the remaining two factors involve the luck of being born during the Great Depression and being exposed to parents who performed meaningful work.

Gladwell surmises that the cultural legacy of the three factors frame the success for Joe Flom and others like him.

Rounding out his theory on legacy, Gladwell cites the background of the Appalachian Howard and Turner clans of Kentucky. From the description, imagine it as a cross between The Proposition and Appaloosa


Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives.

They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.

Gladwell is careful to note that using the idea of cultural legacies to determine success is a slippery slope that can lead to racial and social stereotyping. I’m not impressed. And, neither should anyone reading this book. I thought I’d be “wow-ed” by Gladwell’s interpretations of success – I’m only disappointed. No, I did not read Tipping Point or Blink.

I can only assume that those are his better books because they are a part of today’s b-school and grad school curriculums.

From Gladwell’s observations, I only conclude (so far) that he is supplying interesting facts and tethering what may seem like disconnected ideas to give success a new “spin.”

Maybe, I’m biased or short-sighted. Perhaps, I’m reading everything wrong. Generally, a book that is seeking to change my views on success has only created a set of factors (some within my control, some not) as annoyances and ancestrally created obstacles.

If Gladwell is trying to (re)define success as something that is 3-dimensional, he has succeeded. Yet, only for the wrong reasons.

According to Outliers, if my parents time my birth year just right, I will only need to spend 10,000 hours doing something meaningful and complex that gives me autonomy. I have to remember to speak up and make sure that people accomodate my needs. I just need to be smart enough to get into college, but not necessarily be a genius. And, if I’m raised in the South and haven’t gone to jail (yet)  for someone “disrespecting” me – I should be OK.

So far…(maybe not) so good.

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booksDear Readers,

You know the drill. Enjoy!

Malcolm Gladwell chronicles the evidence of genius in context to career success in Chapters 3 and 4 of Outliers. Citing the work of psychologist Lewis Terman and detailing the life of Chris Langan, Gladwell uses both as examples of how having super brain power has little to do with sky rocketing success. In each chapter, the conventional idea that superior intellect alone is not enough to determine future success is creatively challenged.

Essentially, only up to a certain point, intellect staves off and doesn’t matter quite as much. As an example, Gladwell compares height in professional basketball (Gladwell really likes sports, doesn’t he?) with the scale of intelligence:

You need to be at least six foot or six one to play at that level, and, all things being equal, it’s probably better to be six two than six one, and better to be six three than six two. But past a certain point, height stops mattering so much.

A player who is six foot eight is not automatically better than someone two inches shorter. (Michael Jordan, the greatest player ever, wa six six after all.)

A basketball player has to be tall enough – and the same is true of intelligence. Intelligence has a threshold.

So, that’s great. One only has to be smart enough, period. I’m ready to cue Stuart Smalley with his famous catch phrase. As mentioned, Gladwell chronicles the life of Chris Langan who’s got super sized brain power – a certified genius. He even did one of those gimmicky TV game shows called 1 vs. 100 (ever heard of it? I haven’t).

Basically wasted talent, Langan only manages to make it through a year and a half of college before dropping out and drifting to…nowhere? How could this happen? How can someone with the IQ of 195 (higher than Einstein’s!) disappear into the fabric of being dully ordinary? If you want the details, read the book.

But, in a nutshell, a series of unfortunate events and missteps made a huge contribution to Chris Lagan’s current state of affairs (well, not really, in my opinion).

In Chapter 4, we delve a little deeper into Langan’s background. An abusive stepfather, disjointed childhood and a fractured home life have all played a role in Langan’s upbringing. Summarily, Gladwell deems Langan’s lack of “practical intelligence”  as a major factor leading to his less than extraordinary success. The chapter cites the work of sociologist Annette Lareau, using her study as comparative set up for Langan and Robert Oppenheimer.

By the way, Oppenheimer tried to poison his tutor – but he was a genius!

In short, Gladwell asserts through Lareau’s findings that children raised with a sense of entitlement are more likely to be successful than those who are not taught to use it (or expect it) no matter how smart they are.

Entitlement is not used negatively in this sense, but instead, conjures ideas of speaking up, asking for special treatment and “customizing” your environment to fit your particular needs. This is not something you are born to do – you learn to do it (usually from your parents). Now, we can have a good reason to blame our parents for one more thing gone wrong in our lives.

Because Langan lacked this particular skill, he had trouble navigating his way through college, financial aid paperwork and, from it what it seems, life in general. 

Chris Langan only had the bleakness of Bozeman [Montana], and a home dominated by an angry, drunken stepfather….That was the the lesson Langan learned from his childhood: distrust authority and be independent….He didn’t learn entitlement. He learned constraint.

It may seem like a small thing, but it was a crippling handicap in navigating the world beyond Bozeman.

This entitlement that Gladwell speaks of sounds like the helicopter parenting that the Me-Generation has been immersed – and the one that everyone complains about. Let’s make up our minds people! Wait, let’s not bother with that.

So, having a sense of entitlement is good now? It’s okay to ask for what you want and expect to get it? Well, thank you Mr. Gladwell. I can get started on my success now. How many duh moments am I going to have with this book? Note the scathing sarcasm.

I don’t believe many twenty somethings have a problem with entitlement. Gladwell does have a point. You may have to be taught to speak up for yourself and to ask for the things you need to get what you want. Entitlement may be learned, but you don’t necessarily need someone else to teach it to you (or help you recognize that you need it).

Negotiating out of tight spots (like Oppenheimer did with the board after trying to poison his teacher) or navigating the clutter of financial aid processes for college comes down to one thing: self-preservation. If Langan wasn’t interested in trying to figure out how to pay for school or figure out other ways to feed his genius, all the entitlement in the world isn’t going to make up for that. 

And perhaps, that’s why Gladwell calls it heartbreaking.

But to me, it just seems plain stupid.

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10,000 HoursDear Readers,

Welcome to the next segment of the “You’re Not Successful, You’re Just Lucky Series.” If this is your first time here – Welcome. I’m glad you stopped by. This post will (quickly) explore the second chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s Book, Outliers. Let’s get started, shall we?

Gladwell opens the chapter discussing the life of William (Bill) Joy, founder and chief techno-architect of Sun Microsystems. He chronicles Joy’s life as high school whiz to his journey to the University of Michigan. There, the school kept the first ever computer center (open 24 hours). Upon discovering this, Joy spent an inordinate amount of his undergraduate career devoted to obsessively computer programming. In doing so, he became something like the new Messiah of the Tech world.

Throughout the chapter, Gladwell cites examples of musicians (even Mozart), expert chess players, and computer programmers as individuals who did not reach their full peak until they were practicing their craft for quite some time.  The chapter discusses the professional journeys of people like The Beatles and Bill Gates – Gladlwell, in turn, puts their successes in this context:

“The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again of the expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

10,000 hours – what does that mean for the rest of us, Mr. Gladwell? Actually, he tells us – a long damn time. He even asserts that so called child prodigies like Mozart didn’t reach their artistic peak until they had practiced for over several years. That is obvious. However, this number – 10,000 – is applied to everyone. According to Gladwell,

“To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about ten years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fischer got to that elite level in less than that amount of time: it took him 9 years.) And what’s ten years? Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number for greatness.”

10 years? Are you kidding? I can’t imagine what I’d have to be so bad at from the start that it would take me 10 whole years to perfect. The “greatness” factor is defined as becoming expert at anything whether you are a basketball player, master criminal or prima ballerina.

I’m trying to think of my life in 10 year increments.

Think of your life in ten year increments.

What have you been doing for the last 10 years? And, if you can muddle through the memories of SATs, college papers, pub crawls, crappy summer jobs, and hanging out with friends, what’s your answer? What have you been doing for 10,000 hours that makes you an expert?

You may come up with this answer: nothing. I can’t believe this. I’m only in the second chapter about a book examining success and it makes me want to jump off the tallest building.

At least, that’s what I thought at first.

That doesn’t leave a lot hope for twenty-somethings. If we’re oh-so-lucky enough to figure out what we want to do by age 13 – we’d have it expertly “in the bag” ten years later? Or, in the other case, we make it to age 20, but haven’t managed to figure out our life (after all, just getting through junior high and high school was difficult enough) – we’d have to dig around until we are 30 to get our skills in expert gear?

Cue the screaming chorus.

Then, I recruited my super cool (and more mathematically inclined) boyfriend to help make sense of Gladwell’s assertion in number terms. For us Joe and Jane Gen Y-ers, we have a lot invested in becoming successful, happy and knowledgeable. We are the most educated generation to date (but, that statistic may wane in a few years). We aren’t as in a hurry to figure out our lives, so the task of devoting 10,000 hours (read: 10 years) to becoming a world class expert in anything is daunting.

So, let’s see what alternatives we have. We have plenty of time to figure out alternatives, after all, it’s 10 years.

You and I work (or maybe you don’t “work”, but let’s play along) an average of 5 days a week 365 days a year. This 5 day workweek is taken from your normal 7 day week (hey, not everyone works 24/7, 0k?)

So, our equation starts out like this:

365 (days a year) X 5 (work days)
7 (total number of days in a week)

But wait! You have a life, don’t you? Let’s factor in those personal and vacation days your employer gives you. So, for the sake of argument, you have the average of 2 weeks vacation. But, let’s also keep holidays and sick days in mind. So, that’s another 2 weeks bundled in there. Let’s assume that on those vacation days, sick days and holidays – you aren’t devoting your time to becoming an expert (the weekends, too).  This totals twenty days of doing nothing (like what you were doing before reading this post, perhaps?)

Now our equation looks like this:

365  X 5  – 10 (vacation days) – 10 (sick days, holidays)

Our answer is roughly 240. That means we get a total of 240 days out the year to devote to becoming an expert at our jobs or whatever. We can take that number and multiply it by the hours a day you work at becoming an expert. The number can be either 8 or 7.5.

I’m going to be nice and assume you are really devoted to honing your skills – we’ll use the 8-hour scale first.

240 X 8 = 1920

Sounds like we might be getting somewhere. That’s a lot of time, 1920 hours. How do they figure into the 10,000 hour rule?

10000 /1920 = 5.2

That number doesn’t like like a ten. In fact, it’s roughly half of ten. According to my calculation, that equals a little over 5 years. For you lazier sort who just had to have that .5 increment of time to yourself, here’s the other equation:

240 X 7.5 = 1800            10000/1800 = 5.5

Well, the 7.5 hour workers have a little catching up to do, but not much.

Think of your life in five year increments instead of ten. It’s a lot more palatable to see your talents and accomplishments spaced out in a shorter bit of time. Five years can be college with some time off in between – what did you get out those particular five years? Five years can be the amount of time you spent in a particular industry – what was happening? Maybe, five years ago is when you started your blog.

So, it doesn’t take 10 years to become good at something, perhaps just 5 (according to my calculations). Maybe even less, if you devote yourself to something beyond the regular workweek. Gladwell makes an intriguing, but obvious point, it takes time to become really good at something (duh again, Gladwell!).

Yet, perhaps 10 years borders on overkill. And, while practice is wonderful, implying that it will take 10 years to become a world class expert doesn’t do much for the time-starved Gen-Yer. We have a lot of the world (and life) to discover and don’t necessarily want to devote ten years to becoming good at only one thing.



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ice-hockeyHello Readers,

This post is the first of a series titled, “You’re not Succesful, You’re Just Lucky.” This series is devoted to exploring Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Below is a short synopsis and commentary of Chapter One:

Malcolm Gladwell begins the chapter, “The Matthew Effect” detailing the processes of how Canadian ice hockey players are chosen.

Throughout the chapter, Gladwell makes the case for how those lucky enough to be born earlier in the year reap the benefits of physical maturity over younger players in terms of additional practice and training.

A self-fulfilling prophecy emerges because players are picked with the false notion that they are the “best,” but through additional training, they become stars, therefore initially proving the false assumption as “correct.”

Gladwell surmises that cut off dates hugely figure into whether ice hockey players progress to proceeding leagues, or spend it on the bench, prematurely swapped out because of their weaker, underdeveloped playing skills.

According to Gladwell,

We could easily take control of the machinery of achievement, in other words – not just sports, but, as we will see, in other consequential areas as well.

But we don’t.

And why?

Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules in which we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.

Basically, you are screwed if you are a Canadian from an ice hockey crazed family and weren’t born in the first half of the year.

I say, count yourself lucky, move to America and play basketball instead. Gladwell uses Canada’s ice hockey system as a frame to explain the inefficiencies in using cut off dates in context to our educational system.

It’s somewhat of a slim example, at best. Gladwell claims that older children will always outpace younger children in sports and academia because of the advantage of advanced maturity (if, even only by a few months).


And while Gladwell’s conclusion is wholly obvious, it’s extremely “hidden” as well. Such differences do create unfair advantages – Gladwell thinks one way to overcome them is to fine tune the age groupings.

He believes that once that is done, the playing field would be further evened out.

Would it be that simple?

There’s a lot more to account for than just making sure all the 5 year olds born between October and December get an even playing field by being grouped together.

Individual intelligence and parental involvement contribute quite a bit to a child’s development in school. Surely, Gladwell can’t merely suggest that administrative changes in school policy could solve the problems of our nation’s school performance?

Well, Gladwell claims he is just beginning to set the stage – I hope he brings more to the party.

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outliers1Hello Readers,

I’ve taken on a project that should keep me busy for the next few weeks and be a lot of fun for YOU. Recently, I purchased Malcom Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers. If you don’t know who Mr. Gladwell is, he is the mega-successful author of The Tipping Point and Blink.

Considering that my blog focuses on professional cluelessness and career sputtering – I thought it would be a good idea to read his book, chapter by chapter, and tell you what I think.

The main premise of Outliers is that society has it all wrong when it comes to understanding success. High achievers, geniuses, and business dynamos have been aptly groomed not because of any particularly special talent they possess – but of the circumstances and surroundings in which they intentionally (and unintentionally) immerse themselves.

The idea of success is an especially mysterious concept to those who find themselves in the career version of a pinball machine. Bouncing back and forth, hitting a high score in some places and completely flopping out in others.

Its very definition seems to be an ever changing and elusive ideal, dependant upon so much more than just pay checks and job titles.

I will submit a new post each Monday week covering a chapter in Outliers. Each post will provide a short synopsis and critique – maybe even some witty commentary 🙂 I am sure Mr. Gladwell’s book will provide some interestingly unconventional insight to the ideas and factors that define success.

Let’s hope they aren’t too unconventional.


The Writerbabe

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