There’s this book I’m reading right now (among many other books that I happen to be reading at the same time) called “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. After hearing about Outliers through some random Cracked article I stumbled onto, I found myself curious:
Why is everyone reading this book, and why is everyone quoting it?
As it turns out, the people reading this book are those who want to be successful (duh). And everyone who wants to be successful, of course, wants to understand why successful people are, indeed, successful, and how it is they got to be there. For myself, I’m reading it because I happen to think I am successful in a small way, and I want to see what this Malcolm Gladwell character is saying about “me” (or other people who also happen to prosper).
That being said …
This book should not be anyone’s bible on how it is that successful people have come to find success, and anyone who does treat this book that way needs a hard smack on the back of the head.
For any book, documentary or study that we read, it’s important that we always approach the findings as simply one perspective on an idea or subject. After reading multiple books on the same subjects, you’ll find that not everyone agrees on certain ideas, and that some authors even go so far as to blatantly say all other ideas are wrong and their thesis is the only viewpoint possible of being correct.
Which is just plain stupid.
That said …
I approached reading this book with an open mind.
Malcolm Gladwell speculates that the success of certain individuals begins first with luck versus actual ability (what time of year we are born, what opportunities we are given due to age, our environment, etc). He then goes on to say that every success of ours thereafter is only due to that beginning “luck” value. Or in other words, our “Accumulative Advantage”. He backs this up with a few case studies to prove his point.
How do I feel about that?
Sure. In the way we can relate to any generally vague horoscope in the Sunday paper, I can also associate Gladwell’s findings with my own life. For example: Yes, I can believe that in some skewed way, the only reason I am successful is due to some sort of early advantage I have.
Being born to my over-protective Asian parents, for instance, meant that I spent a lot of time indoors and cooped up in my room or on the Internet instead of out playing with other kids. Because of this, I resorted to playing a shitload of video games, filling stacks upon stacks of sketchbooks with shitty illustrations, reading craptons of books and online fan fictions, then spending a good majority of my childhood participating in creative writing or online role playing (seriously — I’m that lame).
Gladwell continues with, “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” In summary, he claims researchers have found that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to become geniuses at whatever talent we are extraordinarily successful with.
Again, yes. I can sort of agree with that.
As I mentioned before, I spent almost all of my childhood indoors or desperately attempting to find interesting or creative things to do. Being the perfect angel that I was, this meant that times I would have spent goofing off at a school dance or gossiping with girlfriends at sleepovers were instead spent perfecting the crafts that I happen to be monetizing today: Writing, Illustration, Video Games and the Internet.
So far so good, Gladwell.
In a recent interview, I jokingly claimed to have this sort of “Asian Super Brain”.
I was terrible at explaining what I meant by that on the spot, but thinking back on it now … It definitely has something to do with the amount of time and attention I spend on excelling at whatever assignment or task I am given, then improving on my output even further. This ties in with my then-childhood and now-adult habit of staying indoors and remaining focused on the things that I enjoy or am good at, instead of out and about doing … Well. Whatever else there is to do that I’m not doing. /Shrug.
Friends have come to me before with the questions, “Why are you so successful?” And, “What are you doing that’s different from what I’ve been doing?” To which my reply has always been, “I’m doing what I love to do. And I’ve been doing it my whole life, so it only makes sense that it’s become what I do for a living.”
Or in other words, I am doing what I’ve spent my entire life practicing.
According to Gladwell, I’ve spent over 10,000 hours practicing the things that I’m great at now. And when I think back on it with that perspective, I’m pretty fucking sure I have. I really have spent forever writing.
This isn’t to say that I’ve spent my entire life writing well. You should see some of the bullshit I used to scribble in my childhood diaries (of which I have many, by the way). Over time, however, and with accumulated practice and preparation (although I’ve never considered what I do to be practice — writing is just a habit of mine due to environment and “luck” from childhood), the improvement in my work becomes obvious. I’ve improved so much, in fact, that people actually pay me to write shit for them now.
In essence, what others might see as “work” is, for me, “fun”.
In that sense, yes. I definitely have an unfair advantage.
Perhaps the main thing I disagree with on this book was said to me in a tweet earlier this afternoon:
Ignoring the obvious spelling and grammatical errors, this reply rings true for me as well.
I spend almost all of my time preaching that we are in control of our own lives, and that wherever it is that we end up will have been because of the decisions we’ve made — not because of the strange circumstances that have put us there. And while I will admit that a lot of my fortune is due to being in the right place at the right time, I will say that the reasons I am in the right place is because I decided to be there, not because I was lucky enough to be there when the opportunity was given.
Gladwell weighs success so heavily on coincidence that it is almost insulting to anyone who has put hours of effort into their achievements, including me. Yes, being forced to find other ways to entertain myself instead of having a social life has given me sort of that “unfair advantage” in terms of the amount of time I’ve been able to spend honing my talents, BUT! I am the one who chose to do those things, I am the one who decided to get better at them, and I am the one who actively pursued careers in those fields — coincidence isn’t what made me good at what I do.
To attribute the success of every person we know to an instance in their life where they happened to “get lucky” is just bullshit. By that logic, Obama is lucky. Bill Gates is lucky. Steve Jobs is lucky. Donald Trump is lucky. Oprah is lucky.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.
For a lot of these successful people, there is actual strategic thought behind many of their accomplishments. I’m sure Gladwell would argue that their strategic thought is due to accumulative advantage in that they were put in some sort of situation that allowed them to develop that sort of thinking, but it’s what you actually do with what you develop that determines your success. Some people just don’t have that drive or ambition to reach points where success can be achieved, regardless of skill or luck.
I still firmly believe that my success is my own and not because I am given unfair advantages.
Whatever unfair advantages I happen to have now, I’ve worked my ass off for. No one I know has gotten to a place of success by standing still.
I feel like this book just gives lazy people more of an excuse to be absolutely useless instead of actively reaching for their goals. It’s easy to blame failure on the idea that “Life Isn’t Fair” (which is what this book should be titled). I am so sick of hearing people whine that so-and-so is doing better than them because they’re prettier, or more people know them, or blahblahblah — shut the fuck up.
I didn’t get to where I am because I’m pretty (which I hear often, by the way). And even if I did, you think this shit didn’t take work?! It took work to discover how to do my makeup the right way, how to dress to flatter my own body, and how to carry myself in public in a way that accurately represents me as “attractive”. Prior to being able to act in a socially acceptable manner, I was awkward, shy, and weird. I am still, in many ways, awkward, shy, and weird. So when people do attribute my success to my outward appearance, it’s like, well thanks! Glad to know it’s fucking working, jerks! Now go put some effort into looking good yourself so you can stop saying it’s “unfair” that I’m attractive, assholes.
Below, see evidence that I was, indeed, awkward, shy, and weird when I was younger:
It’s much easier to imagine a girl who looks like that playing video games all day and surfing the Internet than it is to picture a girl who looks like this having nerdy hobbies, isn’t it?:
Again, I stress:
I am where I am, and I am who I am because I want to be. I tried to be. I worked to be here and become the change I wanted to see in myself. Luck didn’t determine who I became or how I ended up here — it happened because I had the will to make it so.
It’s a good book. And while I definitely disagree with a lot of what Gladwell says, it’s still interesting to read about success from another perspective.
I wouldn’t say I recommend Outliers: The Story of Success as an absolute must-read, but it’s great conversationally as a lot of people actually have read through this madness. Basically, if you want to sound like you know shit or are just genuinely curious, sure, read it. It’s only around $10 USD or so right now on Kindle. But for those of you actually looking for some kind of surefire methodology to achieve success, this is not the book for you.
If you have any thoughts to add about the book, please do chime in. I’m interested in what you have to say.
If you just want to make fun of how stupid I looked when I was 17, also feel free to chime in. I am aware that I was a hot mess as a child. On top of that, I was also not very hygienic and avoided showering in favor of playing video games — just saying.
… Not the case anymore, of course.
I smell good now,
XOXO Cheri XOXO
EDIT: I was linked to this Malcolm Gladwell TED Talk on my Google+ profile and thought you’d all be interested.
In summary …
People don’t always know what they want, nor can they always explain it. The way to make people happy is to give them something to aspire to. To turn their backs on what they think they like now and reach for something higher up in the hierarchy.
Different kinds of goals, however, suit different kinds of people.
We often believe that what it takes to make people happy is to provide them with what we think is culturally authentic or acceptable. We also tend to believe that when we give someone what is culturally authentic, they will embrace it. But nothing is universal — nothing governs the way that all of us behave.
We must move from accepting universals to understanding variability. In embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a sure way to true happiness.
Now that is something I can agree with, Gladwell.