The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
Note: This Outliers summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise The 70+ Best Books on Learning of All Time.
TYPE: Non-fiction (science), theoretical.
1-SENTENCE-SUMMARY:: A systematic debunking of the myth that success is mostly determined by talent and hard-work – with quantitative and qualitative evidence from medicine, sport, business, history, music, science and more – by journalist and author, Malcolm Gladwell.
IN A NUTSHELL: “We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But there’s nothing in any of the histories we’ve looked at so far to suggest things are that simple. These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.”
When explaining/dissecting why some people achieve more than others, we often overvalue natural-talent and self-determinism, i.e.:
- Who we are: Innate talent, character; and
- What we did: Preparation, decisions.
But the idea that the best rise to the top because they are naturally better and brighter is simplistic.
In reality, many, interacting and compounding drivers set the odds of success. Some factors, steps and decisions are within our awareness and control. Many more are beyond them. And coming to terms with this reality is an essential part of increasing equality, opportunities and outcomes for all.
Proving this thesis doesn’t need a full competing theory. It simply needs to disprove the self-deterministic incumbent. This is the task Gladwell takes on in Outliers – drawing on medicine, sport, business, history, music, science and his own life to illustrate the true complexity of success.
For specific stories, refer to the original (a hallmark of Gladwell’s writing is his wonderful storytelling). Some of the fascinating principles highlighted include:
- The powerful accumulative biases hidden in the details of supposedly meritocratic systems (e.g., cut-off dates and streaming in schools and sport);
- The early, vital and unequal opportunities unlocked by parenting and patronage (prodigies aren’t born, they are made);
- The difficulty of defining talent and failure of intelligence tests in predicting long-term achievement;
- The role of luck in enabling both quantity and quality of practice needed for success (N.b., Outliers popularised the 10,000-hour rule);
- The profound impact of cultural legacy and prejudice in distributing opportunities; and
- The effects of language in making it easier or harder to learn (e.g., Chinese number systems and mathematics).
Gladwell’s conclusion? The self-made-success template fails across many domains. And even factors that we might think of as in our control (e.g., character and practice) are often much more dependent on opportunity and legacy than we realise.
What truly distinguishes success stories from stories you’ve never heard isn’t extraordinary talent – it’s extraordinary opportunities.
So why does the old myth persist? Because:
- Our brains just can’t factor everything in – We aren’t able to visualise compound results of many causes working together, at once or over time.
- But simplifying forces narrative fallacy – Story-telling forces us to pick a single, linear line of causality through complex and non-linear systems.
- And when we do, we suffer from self-serving bias – Given the choice, we naturally store, recall and overweight factors we control to explain success.
Why does any of this matter? Because realising that success is more than innate talent and preparation allows us to better understand reality. And a better understanding of reality is the first step in:
- Navigating it more effectively; and
- Improving it for us all.
So, take the success stories of others with a pinch of salt. Be aware of creating, endorsing or falling on the wrong side of systems that distribute opportunity unfairly. And remember, much more of success than you realise is neither deserved nor earned.
“Your choices are half chance, and so are everybody else’s” – Everybody’s Free, Baz Luhrmann
N.B., Like all of Gladwell’s writing this is wonderfully researched and full of illustrative stories and evidence. Outliers is a book I need and want to come back to for a full crunch – if you haven’t yet, it’s well worth a read. Like the gist of what we’ve covered here? Check out this crunch of Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Gladwell’s fascinating podcast Revisionist History.
Enjoyed this Outliers summary? You might enjoy the rest of the books on this list of The 70+ Best Books on Learning of All Time.
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