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Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Reply to: Is Gladwell Right About What’s Most Likely to Make You Successful?

It took me awhile to finally decide to write this post as it runs against the tide of most readers’ opinions. And many feel strongly as I discovered at dinner last night with friends, but here goes. Outliers purports to reveal the real reason some people — like Bill Joy, the Beatles and Bill Gates— are successful. Yet what Malcolm Gladwell finds is, as Michiko Kakutani notes, “little more than common sense” – except when he draws conclusions about what’s most important for success.

I admit that my summary of the book is not as fascinating or sticky as the

vignettes in it, yet see if Gladwell’s conclusions surprise you:

1. Talent alone is not enough to ensure success.

2. Opportunity, hard work, timing and luck are also essential.

3. Poor children are less likely to succeed than those raised in rich or middle-class families.

4. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to become successful.

The first three seem blindingly obvious yet I disagree about what’s most important. And he over-generalizes. While it’s also obvious that mastery improves one’s chance for success, his conclusion that there’s a magic amount of practice time cannot be substantiated by the studies, interviews (Bill Joy, for example) and stories he offers…

…As Isaac Chotiner concludes, Gladwell “dislikes attributing individual accomplishment to the accomplishing individuals. He has set out to prove that people with social advantages do better than people without social advantages, and so the really wise thing for society to do is to arrange for more advantages for more people.” In fact Gladwell never really defines success.

Here’s my problem. He plays up the power of cultural background, timing and economic class and downplays the role in success of talent and perseverance...

You can read her full post at

This is my response in turn:


Thank you for your kindness in sharing your "cautionary notes" about Gladwell's conclusions. I agree with your topics of caution to varying degrees. I think that is exactly the issue, that we do not have mathematical precision on how to measure some of the points. I visited your blog and enjoyed not only your comments but those of your readers as well.

I posted a rather long response there that I would like to elaborate on here. I think Gladwell did take into account personal responsibility and perseverance and such things as deliberate collaboration. He lumps them under what he calls "meaningful work".

He says: "Those three things -- autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward -- are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful...hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning...once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig...the most important consequences of the miracle of the garment industry, though, was what happened to the children growing up in those homes where meaningful work was practiced...a lesson crucial to those who wanted to tackle the upper reaches of a profesion like law or medicine: if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world."

Just as I pieced the run on sentence from pages of discussion on meaningful work, I think meaningful work is the tread that holds it all together. I suspect that it is not that Gladwell ignores the concept of purposeful effort that he focuses upon the cultural issues. I think he makes the point that people flounder until their culture gives them the opportunity to discover purposeful effort. So, my conclusion is that if you were to sit down with Mr. Gladwell, he would agree with your cautionary concerns, except perhaps about the 10,000 hours. It is the combination of advantage, however it is produced, with meaningful work, that ultimately marks the path of the outlier.

For the convenience of readers to this blog, I will share below my more detailed post to your blog.

Thanks for taking time to both read my original post and to share with me your observations. As a blogger, you know how precious a gift that is.



Thanks for a very thoughtful set of comments about Outliers. I do believe you are correct to say that the ideas should not be accepted unchallenged. Like many things around us, this is a story of trends and probabilities. There is no exact science that we can develop at this point that describes everything perfectly.

I tend to agree with your challenge of the 10,000 hour rule, for example. I have heard it said that one can become exceedingly knowledgeable about many things with 1,000 hours of study. One thousand hours for you and I as newbie bloggers will leave us much more talented than we were at hour five. The same is true for learning to drive a car, learning a foreign language, or playing softball.

I do believe that Gladwell is right about building upon successions of advantage. Small advantages can grow into large advantages. As a former venture capitalist, for example, I did some research on the probability of someone getting financing from a venture capital company. The odds are small that you will get any attention at all, perhaps one in 100 at the time. But if you could get attention to your idea, the investor began to help you think it through and your odds went to one in five. Similar numbers apply to getting your book published or even finding the perfect date with an on-line profile.

In my own personal life, I can see much of the trend that Gladwell discusses. People often ask me how I got from being a minority kid from a low income family in a steel town to the point of being visible to the President of the United States and appointed to be Superintendent of the United States Mint Philadelphia, the world’s largest Mint.

I can assure you that I did not start my youth with that as an aspiration. However, after a couple close scrapes with death, I did know that I did not want to be a steelworker all of my life. I had above average academic skills and was named a National Achievement Scholar by National Merit Corporation. That lead to a degree in engineering from Purdue University, which lead to sharing an office with an engineer who worked on a taskforce doing operations research, sort of a combination of engineering, operational planning, and finance in a refinery. When he was temporarily moved to fill another critical role, I was assigned to step up to fill in for him because we had become friends and I had been interested in what he was doing.

We discovered that I had a talent for this stuff and I was nominated to fill a position as a financial analyst in a new division that was being formed to train some oil people in understanding non-oil related business as a possible diversification strategy. I assumed a managerial role and officer title in a very small subsidiary of a very large corporation. This created eventually an opportunity to back up my trial and error education in business by going to a little school down the street, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

So when the head of the search team looking to fill the position of the President’s appointee to Superintendent of the United States Mint Philadelphia came to town, he and his team talked with engineers, and oil company executives, and bar association chancellors, and bankers, and the Dean of Wharton. One of the things they asked was if they knew any minority person who might be a good candidate for them to interview since the President wanted to make some non-traditional appointments of minorities.

I was not on the top of anyone’s list, but I was on everyone’s list. That got me the first interview. And that interview was much like the eye to eye meeting with a venture capitalist or the endorsement of a literary agent for your book. It changed my odds.

And interestingly enough, my advantage was I had been a steel worker as a kid. I had worked on the bottom rung as a laborer in exactly the same type of heavy industrial environment as the Mint. My ultimate advantage was the disadvantage that got me started on my course of self-improvement.

Surely there is much more detail to how finally getting noticed led to my selection, nomination and ultimate Senate confirmation to become the 16th Superintendent, the youngest in the history of the United States and the first African American. Yet, the point is clear to me that my life correlates exactly to Gladwell’s hypothesis. I worked hard in one way or another every day of my life, but working hard was not sufficient to make me step into a small place in history. Everyone around me worked hard.

Shallie Bey

Smarter Small Business Blog


kare Anderson said...

You are most persuasive and I learned alot from this thoughtful post.

Also, in light of your evident interests (as i read several of your well-done posts) you may be interested in these books: On Being Certain, Multiplicity, Social Intelligence and Here Comes Everybody.

Ah the wonder of the internet that i get to "meet" thought-provoking people - including you.
Thank you

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