Outliers: The elements of success ~ Brand Mix

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Outliers: The elements of success

Photo: tsechuen26

I have a growing pile of books to read and, despite the best of intentions, I didn't get through very many over the holidays. But I did finish off Outliers, the new book by Malcolm Gladwell. No need to review it. That's been done. Instead, here are a couple of things the book made me think about.

The elements of success: The book seeks to answer the question: "Why do some people succeed more than others?" In the nature/nurture debate, Gladwell is a strong nurture supporter, meaning that he prefers to explain success by looking at things like: hard work, luck and culture rather than innate talent.

One of the interesting ideas of the book is his description of the theory that it takes 10,000 hours (or about 10 years) to become really good at anything. Studies have shown that the single thing that distinguishes the skill of one musician over another is the amount of practice that they have put in. What Gladwell doesn't address is the motivation issue. Why do they do it? No amount of cajoling on the part of my parents, for example, would get me to practice the piano where I was a spectacular failure (and caused my piano teacher to retire). I just didn't want to play.

For me the right equation is something like: Mastery = (Talent + Opportunity + Motivation) x Practice. But as Seth Godin points out in his post on the book, mastery is not the same as success. Success means being the best and you can achieve that with many fewer hours of practice if you happen to pick the right field with less competition or if you're the first to do something.

The power of (and sometimes trouble with) stories: Malcolm Gladwell is the consummate story teller. Each theme in the book is introduced by a story that sets up the point he wants to make. There's the story about successful Canadian hockey players all born early in the year, showing how being in the right place at the right time is important; the story of the crashing Korean pilots showing the impact of culture and even the story of his own family used to summarize the book. If anyone ever had any doubt about the power of stories to help sell an idea, this book should put those doubts aside.

But I think this book also shows the trouble with stories. Their power can override facts. Several reviewers have criticized the book exactly on these lines. For example, Joel Spolsky takes issue with "anecdotes disguised as science" and Michiko Kakutani says: "The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.”

It's part of the broader question of presentation vs. content/ideas. I saw this first hand back in my Nestlé days. When we did concept-to-use testing it was clear that how a concept was written was often more influential than what the idea was behind the concept. Which, of course, is disastrous in that particular situation.

So be careful with stories and, in particular, be careful not to use them to cover gaping holes in your knowledge, insights or ideas. You may get away with it sometimes but you're not really doing yourself any favors in the long run.

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