The Secrets of Our Success

Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling books challenge the way we think about ordinary things.

I spent a great part of my recent vacation to Mexico absorbed in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little Brown, $27.99). Anyone who’s interested in what it means to be successful needs to read this book.

I do not say this to suggest that if you read Outliers you will become successful–there’s no self-help, prosperity-gospel, psychobabble tripe in this one. Rather, Gladwell’s book is an insightful look at factors contributing to success that are not always apparent in our Horatio Alger, self-made-man society. It had me on my toes the entire 320 pages.

Malcolm Gladwell, in case you’re wondering, is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter for the Washington Post who has written two (and now three) international bestsellers that challenge the way we look at ordinary things. Leadership teams from large corporations and small churches alike have studied and applied ideas from Gladwell’s books.

In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Gladwell explored the idea that every big trend or movement starts with something small. My favorite “tipping point,” for instance, was the story of how a single, trendsetting vintage shopping crowd saved the Hush Puppies shoe brand.

Then came Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005). Here, Gladwell turned the spotlight on how we make decisions, and explained why many of our “gut” decisions might be more informed and complete than our long, drawn-out assessments. He looks closely at a variety of situations but highlights several that would surprise and intrigue even the most causal thinker.

One of Gladwell’s gifts as a writer is the ability to take bulky subjects like psychology, business, and sociology and translate them into engaging, sometimes quirky, narratives. And each of his books has inspired at least one or two memorable ideas that have gone on to become indispensable for those of us in leadership positions (besides “tipping point,” his most famous, think of terms like “connectors” and “mavens” from The Tipping Point, or “thin-slicing” from Blink).

In Outliers, Gladwell takes the same quirky approach to success, as he argues that a person’s level of accomplishment might have a lot more to do with chance and circumstance than whether she’s naturally gifted–though talent is important. Whatever clichés we seek to attach to our success (e.g., “bootstrapper,” “prodigy”), there are outside factors that contribute heavily to whether or not we are successful. Yes, he writes, there are brilliant people but even for all their brilliance there are a series of external variables that also impact their ability to “make it.”

Outliers challenged me to look at my life and the many “breaks” and “opportunities” I’ve received that contribute to my success. Yes, I believe in working smart vs. working hard. Sure, I am self-motivated and very little stands in my way when I want something. Yes, I am a type-A, choleric, extrovert. Blah, blah, blah. But had I not been born in a certain city, raised in a certain neighborhood, and educated at certain schools, my circumstances would have been drastically different, regardless of my inherent grit.

The infectious idea that grabbed me the most this time is “the 10,000-Hour Rule.” Here, Gladwell asserts that in order for someone to master something (which eventually leads to their success in a chosen field or pursuit), they must do it at least 10,000 hours. From world-class athletes to Bill Gates and the Beatles, he shows us the magic of those essential hours.

The one absent, or underemphasized, theme in this worthwhile book is the role that faith plays in our successes. Without it, many very talented and motivated people would be lost, bitter, or unable to rise above the circumstances of life that often hold them back from reaching their potential. For me, and many others, the story of success would not be possible without the author and perfecter of our faith.

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