Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, opens simply with a definition:
Out-li-er \-,li(-e)r\ noun
1: Something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.
2: A statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.
This is the foundation Gladwell sets for Outliers. A strong storyteller, he weaves tale after tale into each chapter on his quest to define success. His quest is our gain as each story works towards that ultimate goal, intertwined with lessons for everyone.
Full disclosure: This was not my first reading of Outliers (and I suspect it won’t be my last). Not only is it a great read, but its lessons are worth rereading.
Outliers has become a go-to resource for many striving for success, myself included, and it’s the aforementioned lessons that stick with you well beyond the final page of the book. Here are the three key lessons that have had staying power with me:
Success Comes with Time & Effort:
Outliers introduces what Gladwell finds to be the “magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours,” and thus states what has come to be known as the 10,000-hour rule. The success stories of computer geniuses Bill Gates and Bill Joy are founded on 10,000 hours of work and it’s also equivalent to the amount of time the Beatles spent playing small stages before making it big.
At first, 10,000 hours seems equally daunting and attainable. After all, that’s just 5 years away for those working 40 hour weeks! But the more I read this chapter, the more I realize that the bottom line is not about achieving that magic number, but rather the age-old idea that practice makes perfect. In order to be successful, we must be willing to put in the work at perfecting a skill or area of expertise, so keep on keeping on.
Success Comes From Thinking Beyond the Box:
In the book, Gladwell also introduces the divergence test to compare two students of different intellectual levels. The test is a familiar one — thinking up as many uses for a single object as possible (Outliers uses the examples of a brick and a blanket). In this case, Student A is the one to always catch my attention. Student A might not have the higher IQ of the pair but excels at the test due to his quick thinking and creativity, making him the outlier.
The point here is, “Intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” An impressive IQ doesn’t make someone successful, but rather we should always strive to think outside of the box. Do we see the brick as solely an object for building, or do we see it as a “breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles.” It’s this type of thinking that sparks a desire to push boundaries and think beyond the intended use of materials to ultimately run with creativity.
Success Comes to Strong Communicators:
A chapter titled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” encounters communication in extreme circumstances, giving readers an up-close look at several plane crashes, comparing and contrasting key differences in communication. Gladwell ultimately finds that in many situations, the crash could have been avoided had it not been for miscommunications due to language barriers and cultural customs discouraging younger generations from speaking over their elders (something Gladwell refers to as “cultural legacies”). What I take from these tragic, but poignant examples is that clear, concise communication is key.
Successful communication here is two-fold. Part one is communicating a point clearly so that it is understood by all. Without enunciating our thoughts and ideas, we can’t really expect to achieve what we wish to. Part two is speaking up even in situations where you might not be comfortable asserting yourself. To reach success, never let fear or discipline hold you back from speaking your mind.
While there is no elaborate tale explaining why success isn’t an overnight achievement, Gladwell works towards this realization throughout Outliers: Success is situational. Every unique story has a unique set of circumstances that you must navigate to achieve success, therefore there is no one size fits all formula for reaching success. So yes, everyone can devote exactly 10,000 hours to learning or always speak their mind, but each is only a part of the total equation. To truly achieve success we need to dig deeper.
To me, the beauty of Outliers is how Gladwell encourages you to step back and look at the bigger picture, reflecting on your unique situation and ALL of the components that can contribute to your personal success. Closing the cover once more, I am confident in saying that Outliers is a perfectly crafted lesson on storytelling and human potential that is enough to leave anyone ready to command their own success.