Live Well, Do Good

Lessons in Success

Brandon Sun, May 2, 2009 - David McConkey

Why are some people much more successful than others? This is the question Malcolm Gladwell explores in his new bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success.
“Outliers” are phenomena that lie outside of the norm. “Outliers,” the book, is about successful people who live outside of the norm.

Gladwell delves into a diversity of success stories including hockey stars, the Beatles, and Bill Gates. Gladwell is the author of previous bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink.

Successful individuals are smart and work hard, but Gladwell says there is much more to success than that. “Extraordinary achievement,” Gladwell says, “is less about talent than it is about opportunity.”

Most of the stories are from the U.S., but Gladwell refutes the American idea of the lone hero who triumphs by sheer wits and pluck.

“No one,” Gladwell says, “ever makes it alone.”

I think that Gladwell has developed this holistic view because he himself is an outsider. Gladwell grew up in Canada; his parents immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom when he was a young boy.

The book illustrates the advantage of combining the American more individualistic ideal with the Canadian more collective ideal.  

“Outliers” is alive with stories. Why was Bill Gates so successful?  Why do successful airplane pilots come from certain cultures? What do many successful hockey players have in common, which, by the way, has nothing to do with their athletic ability?

Although Gladwell tells the stories of the super stars, he also looks more broadly. He is interested as well in more everyday success, like penniless immigrants who lay the foundation for their children to enter the middle class. Or people who discover rewarding work, do their jobs well, and contribute to their communities.

An underlying current to the book is the meaning of work. Successful people not only work much harder than others, but also seek out work that is satisfying and fulfilling.

The impact of culture intrigues Gladwell. Aspects of some cultures promote success much more than others.

“Cultural legacies matter – they are powerful and pervasive and they persist, long after their original usefulness has passed,” he points out.

Gladwell deals with the cultural topics that we frequently avoid. Like why Jewish immigrants are so successful. Or why Asian kids are so good at math. But Gladwell argues that if we are to examine the parts of cultures that encourage or discourage success, “we have to be frank about a subject that we would all too often rather ignore.”

Reading just a summary of Gladwell’s book might lead one to wonder about racism, but Gladwell’s discussion actually takes race out of the picture. For example, he explains why traditional Korean culture is very good for learning modern math, but very poor for flying modern airplanes. (The descriptions of such dynamics make the book fascinating reading.)

Gladwell’s conclusions are very optimistic. He describes how Korean airplane pilots have learned new skills, and as a result, Korean Air has gone from one of the most dangerous airlines in the world to one of the safest.

In another example, Gladwell tells about a school in New York City where very poor black and Hispanic kids are achieving astounding academic success. Surprisingly, the students who attend are not chosen because of their ability, but by a lottery.

Gladwell’s own experience has given him a special perspective on cultural legacy. Gladwell’s mother is from Jamaica, of mixed racial background: black and white, as well as Arawak – the aboriginal people of that island.

As a descendant of slaves and other oppressed minorities, Gladwell eloquently describes the legacy of generations of racism. Going beyond traditional cultural patterns is very close to his heart. He has written a very personal, powerful, and hopeful book.

I would like to see Gladwell’s analyses applied to Manitoba. All around us we see stories of success, but also of failure.

Why are some ethnic groups in Manitoba much more successful than others? How could more people be more successful?

I imagine that such research could most help our aboriginal citizens, who have suffered greatly from a lack of success.

“We, as a society, have more control about who succeeds – and how many of us succeed – than we think,” Gladwell concludes in a recent interview.

* * * 

See also:

Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories

Tax Time Offers Folks a Chance to Reflect

Reflecting on Consumption

The 4-Hour Workweek

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