Malcolm Gladwell outliers – A very personal review

I’ve recently finished reading “Ouliers” by Malcolm Gladwell (or rather, finished reading the first half, and skimmed through the second one). At the end of the book, I was both inspired and frustrated. I was inspired by the author’s demystification of success as a singular hero’s effort, and frustrated because there was a missing chapter that I wanted to read at the end of that book.

Gladwell used his clever storytelling techniques to cite examples of “lucky” hardworking geniuses who were at the right place at the right time. From Bill Joy, to Bill Gates, to Steve Jobs, he makes the argument that these names would not have been known today if they were not presented with an opportunity that took them from being no ones to being someones.

Gladwell also provides the recipe for becoming a genius: 10,000 hours of work. It’s the magic number that separates the amateur from the professional, the no one from the someone.

I found myself nodding in agreement with many points that the author made, only to realize after turning over the last page that the proposed theory is incomplete. What Gladwell proposed is that there are some lucky ones among us who were able to break through by unique opportunities that was presented to them: A super computer at college or high school, being born in a specific month, or living in the heart of Silicon Valley. He also proposes that these opportunities are presented to selected fews, and not to everyone. Here is where I started shaking my head in disagreement. But what happens to others? Do they not get their own opportunities? Is life unfair? Does God play dice?

I’ve long believed in unfair opportunities that favor some over others. It was easy for me to assume this, than to put in 10,000+ hours of work and be aware of the opportunities that are constantly presented to me. Call it laziness. Call it fear. Or even call it denial. It’s one of the things that makes us favor our comfort zone over our true potential, and choose luxury over self realization.

In my opinion, these outliers are unique, not for the opportunities that were presented to them, but in their recognition of, and ability to act on, these opportunities. Every day, every one of us is presented with unlimited possibilities and unique opportunities. But many of us walk past them, looking at what we want (or what we think we want), unable to hear the secret calling in every omen that speaks to us. Among the noise that surrounds us, it’s becoming harder and harder to hear that faint genuine voice inside us that somehow knows the answer to all our questions.

There is a mysterious force that starts acting with us once we recognize an opportunity, and without having any fear or desire, start acting upon it. Once we start something that we cannot finish alone, somehow we are no longer alone. People and circumstances start appearing out of nowhere to help us. What Paulo Coelho called our personal legend is no more than this faint voice calling us to action, when we see an opportunity that feels right for us to take.

Of course, there is the antagonist that always acts against our call to action. That stronger voice that was bred by our parents, teachers, friends who inherited it over millions of years. The one that tells us that we are not good enough, that we may make fools of ourselves, and that we would crash and burn while attempting to fly. This demon that knows us far better than we know ourselves, is often successful fighting that faint light that’s starting to grow inside us. And that demon is always clever in finding the right excuses for us not to act, pushing our idea for another day, and living a life of postponed dreams. For each one of us, this demon has a different name. And for every one, it has a million names. Sometimes it’s easier to fight that demon when we can find a name for it, and other times we can just fight it by moving forward with what our gut feeling is trying to push us towards.

There are few myths/realities that I realized lately, that are changing the way I think about these so called “outliers”:

  • Myth: Successful people know what they are doing: What’s probably separating them from the crowd is not knowledge about their path, but their ability to move forward with a good deal of uncertainty. They move forward out of their confidence in taking a step towards an initial direction and adjusting their path as they move. As Einstein puts it: Life is like a bicycle, to keep your balance you must keep on moving.”
  • Myth: Successful people don’t have fear: Only amateurs don’t have fear. Having fear is probably the best indicator that you should take that specific direction. What separates these “outliers” from others is their ability to act despite their fear, not their ability to overcome it. If fear is gone, that’s a bad sign.
  • Myth: The path to success is a straight line from “here” to “goal”: Since I came to the US about 7 years ago, I’ve been dumbfounded by the goal-oriented mindset that people live by, and that thousands of self-help authors keep feeding people’s minds with. Goals are great if I know exactly what I want to accomplish. But having that 5 year outlook or that new year’s resolution has rarely worked for me, or for many people and companies I’ve heard of. The challenge is that these targets are always moving. Once we get to the next milestone, life has completely shifted. As one of my mentor put it once: “Change is the only constant in life”. And so I learned that the path to the future is a winding, zigzagging road full of turns and obstacles. We can only see the next step in the path once we move along the current path and take the turn. As Steve Jobs put it in his Stanford Speech, you can only connect the dots looking backward.
  • Myth: One must wait for inspiration to act: Inspiration comes from acting. Our actions, our creations and products, will pay us back the love we invested in them with more inspiration. It’s another mysterious fact that these creations start to take a life of their own, and if we already wait until we know exactly how that book we wanted to start writing will end, our story will be probably mediocre: we didn’t leave enough freedom and uncertainty to the characters to act and create their own story; the story they wanted us to write when they called upon us with this small voice called intuition.
  • Myth: One might get very lonely working alone: There is a great difference between being alone and being lonely. When we are alone, without our TV, our iPhone or our internet browser, we are faced with the person we’ve been out of touch with for most of our lives: ourselves. Trust me, this person has A LOT to say, and if we miss what it’s saying, we would have lived a second hand life. As one of my dear friends puts it: “I am not bored being alone. I think I am a very interesting person to be with”.

I’ve learned these lessons the hard way, and I wish I had someone telling me these facts twenty years ago. However, as the saying goes, if the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is right now.

[Disclaimer: The thoughts and ideas in this post have been inspired by some books that I had the opportunity to read lately. Most notably, Strategic intuition, the War of Art, Surprised by Joy, and Art and Fear]

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for assembling and sharing your deep perspective here, Amir.

    My two cents: after studying psychology as an undergraduate I came to believe that we are ALL outliers. It’s when someone is artificially scrutinized in only one dimension at a time rather than as a complete whole that they can be characterized as “normal”.

    Reply
  2. Hi Amir,

    Oops, I unintentionally neglected to put my name to the comment I just sent (reflecting my view that we are ALL outliers, depending upon how you measure us). Please feel free to associate my name with my comment if you wish to post it.

    thanks,

    – Bruce

    Reply
  3. Amir, totally brilliant. Thank you for putting this together and sending it out. Yeah! What you point out has been my experience in all the important directions I have taken in life. Now, most importantly, the Children’s Path Programs. The reward for me has been pure joy. Not bad, eh?

    Reply
  4. Dear Amir,

    great article indeed – good to attack these unfounded myths.

    love
    Paulo

    Reply
  5. Where I think Gladwell could have been more clear is his definition of Outliers, the difference between the few multi-billionaires our planet knows, and the many happy and successful people. His point is, I think, that to become a multi-billionaire you have to be really, really lucky and be at the accidentally perfectly prepared person on that one moment in a century that all the planets align. What he hardly mentions (because that is not what his book is about) are all the people who are mini-outliers (or as one of the commenters states, we are all outliers)

    The second half of the book therefore feels quite disconnected when he attempts to make a case that good education should be available for everyone.

    Reply

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