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Tipping Points of Success

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Tipping Points of Success

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, he continues his focus on what really makes the difference in success.  In earlier books, he has examined how little things cause ideas to sweep across a community and even how our brain factors in, in both the little things and in making major decisions. In a world constantly on overload and moving at increasing speed, identifying what makes the difference among all the noise has become a critical skill worth developing. As usual, Gladwell has taken interesting events, dug deeper, thrown in some relevant research findings, and produced several “aha” moments where dots get connected.

In Outliers, Gladwell takes on no less than the subject of success and attempts to take “randomness” out of the equation, or at least to minimize it. However, we still have to face the reality that events largely outside of our control play an important part. For example, when you were born apparently has a lot to do with whether or not you become a hockey star and an IT billionaire. Gladwell demonstrates that children with birthdays earlier in the calendar year, and therefore bigger and stronger than players born later in the year, are disproportionately represented on little league all-star teams. These children are therefore more likely to receive the attention and efforts of better coaches as they progress in their athletic career.

Similarly, Gladwell notes that many of the leading computer entrepreneur icons like Bill Gates and Steven Jobs, were all born in the 1950’s, meaning they were just entering their teen years and deciding on what to pursue when computers were beginning to surface as the wave of the future. But Gladwell digs a bit deeper to identify what he calls the “10,000 hour rule.” Simply being born into a generation doesn’t really explain “unusual” success. Individuals like Gates and Jobs also had unique access to computers and experts which allowed them unusually large amounts of time to develop their skills. About 10,000 hours worth according to Gladwell’s calculation. At about the 10,000 hour mark, good things start to happen, and this applies not just to computing. Gladwell notes that the Beatles, early in their careers, accepted the opportunity to play in Hamburg, Germany on five different occasions. “Playing Hamburg” was far from a one night stand. A typical Hamburg trip was anywhere from between 20 and 100 nights, and each night required about five hours of performing.

In each of Gladwell’s examples, the 10,000 hour rule seems linked to passion as well as some tangible compensation. Most of us are not going to get the required time investment without strong internal, and sometimes external, motivation. But opportunity also plays a key role. Bill Gates was fortunate enough to be born into a wealthy family which sent him to a prestigious private school which could offer computer access long before others had the opportunity. Because of this opportunity, Gates had a chance to discover his passion and then that passion fueled the initiative to create enhanced  opportunities.

For the overachiever, we would expect “intelligence” to be present in above average abundance. According to Gladwell, it is, but perhaps not quite as abundant as you might imagine. Gladwell’s research shows that above an IQ of about 120, those extra IQ points don’t really translate into much of an advantage. While it might not hurt to have an IQ of 180, your chances of winning a Nobel Prize for Physics is not any different than if your IQ is 130. Gladwell notes an extensive study of students who were selected as five and six year olds because of their unusually high IQs. These students were then tracked for the rest of their lives. Of the 730 students, only 20 percent were labeled as true successes. Sixty percent ended up doing “satisfactorily.” While twenty percent were considered to have wasted their abilities. Of this last group, one-third did not finish college.

Linking mental intelligence (IQ) with social or emotional intelligence (EQ) appears to be an important factor in explaining success. Gladwell notes the impact of other factors like family background and cultural influences on the process. Interestingly, this captures what Gladwell calls the “legacy” and the impact that practices of our families and communities from generations in the past have on how we deal with current and future opportunities. We are not so free to define our own path as we may think or desire.  Gladwell explains this phenomenon by dissecting a feud between two families whose values are deeply rooted in the American South and its emphasis on personal honor. Also he explores a Korean Airlines plane crash caused by a reluctance to challenge the pilot, despite his crew clearly seeing that disaster was quickly becoming the only possible outcome. He even connects the intricacies required for rice farming with high math scores in East Asia.

Like the classic debate between nature and nurture, Gladwell has taken us on quite a ride, weaving between forces like demographic patterns, in which all we can do is accept the role of the individual who is able to capture the opportunity presented. Gladwell concludes the book with a very personal story of his grandmother, a Jamaican, and her determination to provide opportunity and education for his mother. Gladwell’s mother would go on to be an author as well as raise a bestselling one. In looking back at his mother’s family’s rise from Jamaican slaves, he sees “history’s gifts to my family,” but he also writes about his grandmother’s determination and resourcefulness to overcome situations where opportunities were not universally available.

Gladwell has successfully debunked the notion of the “self made man,” or at least shown its limitations. He has also illustrated several intangible, personal qualities that allow us to see that the dream of real success is seldom just given, but is more likely the product of those who are driven by their faith and passion in accordance with destiny.

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