An “outlier” is anyone or anything that lies far outside the normal range. In business, an outlier is a person dramatically more or less successful than the majority.
Do you want to be an outlier on the upper end of financial success? Certainly.
Outliers is also a very popular book by Malcolm Gladwell. The book has been studied and passed around by teachers, life coaches, business leaders and psychologists. Gladwell attempts to get to the bottom of what makes a person successful.
How the Puck Bounces
Gladwell argues that much of a person’s success is due to circumstances out of his control.
A simple example of his theory is based around one fact: a disproportionate number of players in the National Hockey League were born early in the year.
In Canada, young hockey players are assigned to leagues based upon the year they were born. Therefore, a boy who turns ten in January will be placed in the same league as one born in December. At nearly a year older, the first boy is typically bigger and stronger than the second one.
He excels and is selected to the all-star team. He receives more attention, playing time and coaching. This pattern continues for a few years until, at age fifteen, the first boy is not only bigger and older, but he is also more skilled and better trained.
The kid born in January ends up with a much higher chance of playing professional hockey. Statistics support the phenomenon. Between 1980 and 2007, 36% of players drafted into the NHL were born in the first 25% of the year. Only 14.5% were born in the last 25%.
Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000 Hour Rule,” which states individuals with 10,000 hours of study or practice at a subject or skill have a notably higher chance at success.
The Beatles played 1200 times in Hamburg from 1960-64. During those 10,000 hours of performance, they became the skilled and polished ensemble ready to take over the world.
Bill Gates had the advantage of access to a computer in 1968, which was a rare thing. His mother was on the board of directors for IBM. He spent 10,000 hours programming that machine and developed an unmatched mastery of it. We know how that turned out.
Gladwell also compares two other geniuses. Christopher Langan, despite having an IQ of 195, became a simple horse farmer in Missouri. With no one in his upbringing to help him take advantage of his gifts, Langan never achieved his full potential.
Meanwhile, Robert Oppenheimer, with a similar intelligence, was raised in Manhattan by wealthy and educated parents. They sent him to the best schools and gave him constant encouragement. After graduating from Cambridge, he invented the atomic bomb.
Victory Over Circumstance
While it seems obvious that positive circumstances yield positive results, I was upset that Gladwell insists they limit the individual. Are we really held in place by the details of our upbringing?
Are we stuck being victims of our circumstances? Or can we be victors over our circumstances?
I wasn’t born with the advantages of Oppenheimer or Gates. Or even a Canadian born in January. I come from a working class family. None of my friends growing up seemed inclined for greatness.
You could say I was a “dumb hick.” Did that stop me?
Will it stop you?
Circumstances create you and define you in the beginning, but they can’t limit you unless you let them. The first step to conquering bad circumstances is to understand them.
Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your situation. Know your good influences and bad.
Gladwell writes, “No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.”
I don’t disagree with that. He cites examples from history where the world was larger and more isolated. Access to information, inspiration and encouragement were hard to get. Growing up in a simple town or a poor family was extremely limiting.
We no longer have to accept a small, restrictive community. We can reach out to positive, educated, empowering individuals and groups. We can stretch past our limiting circumstances and achieve more.
I say: “If you want to be poor, have five best friends who are poor.”
The opposite is also true. Find people whose minds and ambitions desire bigger things. Gravitate toward those people and away from those who hold you back.
What Gladwell writes about outliers is completely true if you accept that your circumstances limit and define you. His argument falls apart if you aspire to change your circumstances.
If you didn’t grow up with the best circumstances, your job is to change that. Picture a better world and make it real. Surround yourself with better influences, peers, and circumstances.
You can do it, even if you’re a hockey player born after Christmas.
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