Who Are You Helping to Success?
A Discussion of “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell.
The self-made man is a myth.
Are there people who have worked really hard to get where they are in life?
Are there people who have overcome overwhelming odds to achieve success?
Are there people who have changed the world and risen to success without any support? Without some kind of unique opportunity, lucky break, cultural advantage, family support, or better education?
After reading “Outliers” I would argue that no, there aren’t.
Success / / We often look at those who have achieved great success, those who have changed the world and consider them (and their success) to be outliers— random geniuses and visionaries who through sheer force of will, powered by their own genius, made it on their own. People who are larger than life, with personalities large enough to match their ideas, who seem to bend the world to their will. This is not how it works.
We need to re-look at how we view success. We have turned success into something that is profoundly personal. We think that whether a person finds success or not is totally up to their individual competency and work ethic, but when we do this, we as a society become too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play in each other’s successes, and we miss opportunities to lift others up.
We often hear the parents of successful people talk about how their children were “always a natural” growing up. As if their innate talent just sprouted independently out of nowhere and was enough to carry their child to success. Though there is a reality to how innately talented some people are, achievement is talent plus preparation, and preparation is about a lot more than raw ability.
Thresholds / / Studies have shown that things like IQ and natural ability have thresholds. Once someone has reached an IQ of around 120, having any more IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable advantage in the real world, you just need to be smart enough. So if intelligence only matters up to a point, then things that have nothing to do with intelligence must start to matter more. Things like creativity and grit become bigger predictors of success. Practical intelligence, the type of experiential knowledge that helps us read situations correctly and know how to get what we want becomes increasingly important.
Studies of elite violin students further demonstrate this idea of a threshold. Once a musician is good enough to be at the level of this elite school, the thing that separates them from other musicians is how hard they work, nothing more. In addition, they don’t just work harder than their classmates, they work much, much harder.
We can see something similar with NBA players. It is essentially impossible to become a professional basketball player if you are shorter than six feet tall (even at that height it is almost impossible). But someone who is 6-foot-6 is not automatically better than someone who is 6-foot-three. Once they have reached that minimum threshold— once a player is naturally tall enough— your ability to make it to the NBA are based on other things. Things like where you live and go to school, how well you are coached, whether you play well on the day the scouts are there to see you, how hard you practice, and how much support you get at home.
Lucky Breaks / / Almost without exception, when you look at the path the super-successful take to the top, they seem to have been at the right place at the right time, able to take advantage of opportunities that weren’t available to others. We can look at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and see how they got “lucky breaks” which aligned with their passions and that they were able to take advantage of through hard work. We can look at famous athletes who came from difficult backgrounds and they can all point to that one family member, or that one coach, or that one teacher who supported them and encouraged them.
Creativity, problem-solving, grit, perseverance, communication— people learn these types of lessons from the community around them. We are this community. We as a society need to find a way to not only provide opportunities for all, but to teach people to take advantage of them.
Your Turn / / What privilege or lucky breaks have you been able to take advantage of in your life? It is not something to be embarrassed about, but rather something to be grateful for and make sure we take full advantage of – don’t squander it!
What opportunity do you have to provide an opportunity to someone else? When we start to recognize the opportunities we have been given, we can start seeing the possibility of opening up new opportunities for others.
Success is not personal. When one person succeeds, it has the potential to benefit us all.