I picked up Malcolm Galdwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, when I recently needed an airplane read. It served the purpose well as an entertaining book that was also thought provoking. Gladwell defines Outlier as “a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience.” In this book he looks at “people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”
Gladwell begins the book by looking at why a disproportionate number of Canadian professional hockey players are born in January, February and March. It turns out these are the oldest in their school cohort. This makes them older than their peers. The stratification of hockey players begins at a very early age when this age difference has a big impact on ability. So these slightly older players are much more likely to get put into the elite hockey groups and get the best coaching and have the most challenging peers to play against.
A similar thing happens in other sports where the identification of early talent has a big impact on future success such as American baseball and European soccer. The only difference is when the cutoff point occurs during the year.
Gladwell goes on to get more profound and specific. He offers the 10,000 hour rule. It takes at least 10,000 of practice to get really good at something. Then he offers examples from a variety of industries. First, he notes how the Beatles got a chance to practice more than any other band through their extensive playing times in Hamburg nightclubs. It was only after they passed 10,000 hours, by Gladwell’s estimate, that they started becoming exceptional.
Next, he goes to the birth dates of some of the richest people in history. He offers a chart of the 75 richest people in human history with their wealth recalculated in today’s dollars. The chart itself is really interesting. The top three are John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Number eight is Marcus Crassus of the Roman Empire, and number nine is Basil II of the Byzantine Empire. Twenty percent of the entire list comes from American industrialists who came of age in the post-Civil War industrial boom when major new opportunities for wealth opened up.
He takes this analysis to the computer industry and shows that many of the most successful people here were born in the mid-1950s so they came of age as the computer industry underwent a major transformation. These people include: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Eric Schmidt, and the founders of Sun: Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim. Then he goes into detail to show how both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had largely unique opportunities to get their 10,000 hours with computers at an usually early age.
So Gladwell concludes that there is actually a lot of luck in terms of circumstances behind the biggest successes. It was not simply their stronger intellect and drive. Of course, these people had to take advantage of their luck but the rest of us do not have the same opportunities. He argues that we should be more conscious of these success factors as we plan how to make everyone successful. There is much more to the book. I found it to be one of his best.