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Malcolm Gladwell - Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell is a great story-teller, no doubt about it. I loved his latest book Outliers.

And whilst I agree with Joel Spolksy that the book is little more than cleverly strung together anecdotes, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. For example, Gladwell’s chapter on the necessity of hard work (you must do your 10,000 hours) to achieve success is a good motivator. Yes, it might be common sense, but how often do we see people falling for the ‘overnight success’ mentality? Pretty often, if the sales of ‘get rich quick’ and ‘instant solution’ books/seminars/etc are any indication. Just got to find that shortcut…

However there were two main thoughts that struck me from the book. First, the impact that culture has on how people react in circumstances. Gladwell uses it to discuss aviation accidents, but I’ll be using it to improve how I work with other nationalities in my day-to-day work. As an example, being aware that many cultures ‘hint’ at suggestions when talking to superiors – as opposed to a direct approach. The result: missing important cues and information. Keep this in mind next time you meet with a colleague, employee, or customer.

The second key point I’ll be applying is my attitude to giving up. Did you know that there’s a direct correlation between intelligence, success and how quickly people give up? I’m paraphrasing, but in general, the most intelligent and successful kids are the ones that continue to work hard on a problem. They don’t give up. Of course, this isn’t to be confused with those silly online tests that provide an unsolvable problem and then laugh at how long you stupidly spend attempting to solve it. Nor is it about ‘flogging a dead horse’. No, this is about real world problems, and the attitude of those who are determined to continue working on solutions. This was a real eye-opener for me. Of course, just because it turns out that the kids who don’t give up tend to be smarter, it doesn’t mean that you get smarter by not giving up… but hey, I’m going to conveniently ignore that and assume the contrapositive holds :-)

Ultimately the book can be a little de-motivating if you take the message to heart. Gladwell is suggesting that no matter how hard you work, if you don’t have the special advantages that a select few have, then there’s no chance you’ll be successful. But the balancing point needs to be how he defines ‘success’. In this book he’s predominantly talking about extreme success – billionaires, rock stars and national athletes. Don’t be fooled into thinking their isn’t room for huge success, but just a rung lower. So, whilst you may not have the special advantages, don’t let that be an excuse not to work really hard.

‘Aim for the stars and you might hit the moon’ is a cliché, but perhaps a good summary of my attitude.

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