Friday, January 30, 2009

Five big ideas from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

If you haven't yet read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell you have probably read about it. Gladwell asks the provocative question: "why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential?"

He looks at the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky." There are five powerful ideas in Outliers. If you are too busy to read it because you are becoming a successful outlier, here they are:

1. Skill

The concept: (i) skills strengths and abilities are as much about Emotional Intelligent as IQ (ii) you need lots of people to help you along the way (iii) divergent brainstorming skills are as important as convergent 'smart' skills

Examples: SATs & GMAT are based on convergent skills (e.g. solving a logic problem). Being asked to name 55 uses of a brick is equally hard and requires different skills (but it's harder to test for in a short standardize tests). If you are a lone genius but socially awkward it's very hard to sell ideas and get others on board

Tough questions: how skilled are you in enrolling others in your ideas? how often can you persuade others to help you and join you on your journey (do you have woo)? what can you be doing to develop your right-brained idea generation skills?

Relevant good books: 6 thinking hats - Edward de Bono; Made to stick - Chip Heath

2. Relevance

The concept: the big ideas of today will not be the big ideas of tomorrow. Important to pick long term trends that are emerging.

Examples: The people at the top of New York law firms are often Jewish men who were shut out by the law firms in the 1950s who then started out on their own with a hard work ethic. Rising to the top of a commoditizing, irrelevant industry is hard work and more likely to lead nowhere.

Tough questions: what are the likely long term trends in your industry? what will happen to prices & differentiation? what is getting outsourced to China & India? where are the emerging trends? what problems will people and organizations be looking to solve in ten years? if you are stuck in a disappearing industry, what is your plan to get out?

Relevant books: Blue Ocean Strategy; The World is Flat - Tom Friedman

3. Timing

The concept: when people are fast-tracked for success then huge advantage to have timing on your side. Being born in the right era helps match you to your skills

Examples: Professional hockey and soccer players are much more likely to be born closer to January. They are fast tracked at a young age and that's when a few months of additional growth helps you excel against you peers and picked for the team. That then gives you more experience playing with the A-players which creates a virtuous circle. Also true for what decade / era you are born in: Bill Gates, founders of Sun Microsystem etc were all born within a few years of each other

Tough questions: Where can you be the big fish in the small pond? How can you use that to get preferential experience?

4. Effort

Concept: Persistence, grit & self-efficacy are all necessary in getting ahead. Mastery comes after 10,000 hours of practice. Don't predict geniuses too young. People will only be persistent if they are doing what they love. For it to be meaningful a person must have i) autonomy ii) the task must be sufficiently complex (to enable Flow) iii) connect effort & reward (person gets appropriate timely, honest payoff / feedback from their work)

Examples: Mozart's early compositions were poor. Boris Becker, classical musicians, writers, almost everyone starts to come into their own after ~10,000 hours of practice. Kid's spelling Bee success is predicted by persistence more than verbal reasoning

Tough questions: where do you seek mastery? for what are you on track to get 10,000 hours experience? What needs to change in your life to get more? How much grit do you have in life? Are you really matching your work with your strengths? How well do you praise the efforts of others vs their innate ability?

5. Cultural predisposition

Concept: Parents play a huge role teaching kids to be assertive, questioning authority. As to proverbs we teach our kids to instill behavior. But also our predispositions go back generations (war-mongering for instance is much more genetic than we realize). Hofstede: Power Distance Index (PDI) predicts which junior team are prepared to question their boss.

Examples: incidence of national plane crashes correlate closely with Hofstede's PDI. High PDI means that junior crew is unlikely to question the captain when he makes a mistake. Crew is unlikely to assert itself with air-traffic control even when it is in trouble. Chinese proverbs are much more about hard-work than Western ones

Tough questions: how assertive and questioning are you? how much do you just want to go with the flow? when do you allowed yourself to be steam-rollered rather than standing up for your beliefs? How much do you allow others working for you to question your judgement or decisions?

1 comment:

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