Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why some people succeed and some don't

Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote "The Tipping Point" and "Blink" has a new book out called "Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don't" that looks at the circumstances that successful people take advantage of in order to succeed.

Says Gladwell:

"We have the kind of self-made-man myth, which says that super-successful people did it themselves. And we have a series of other beliefs that say that our personality, our intelligence, all of our innate characteristics are the primary driving force. It's that cluster of things that I don't agree with.

The premise of this book is that you can learn a lot more about success by looking around at the successful person, at what culture they belong to, what their parents did for a living. Successful people are people who have made the most of a series of gifts that have been given to them by their culture or their history, by their generation."

So seeing and taking advantage of gifts and opportunities is one key, according to Gladwell.

Another key is practice. Gladwell references the "10,000 hour rule," which says "that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day."

Success also has a lot to do with culture. For example:

"Asian culture has a profoundly different relationship to work. It rewards people who are persistent. Take a random group of 8-year-old American and Japanese kids, give them all a really, really hard math problem, and start a stopwatch. The American kids will give up after 30, 40 seconds. If you let the test run for 15 minutes, the Japanese kids will not have given up. You have to take it away."

Gladwell contends that value -- of sticking with something -- is grounded in Asian history and culture:

"Asian cultures are all wet-rice agricultural economies. Growing rice is this extraordinarily complex, labor-intensive activity that requires not just physical engagement but mental engagement. So a farmer in 14th-century Japan or 14th-century China was working 3,000 hours a year - three times longer. I know it sounds hard to believe, but habits laid down by our ancestors persist even after the conditions that created those habits have gone away."

According to Gladwell, "instead of thinking about talent as something that you acquire, talent should be thought of as something that you develop."

[Here's a video of Gladwell talking about what we can learn from spaghetti sauce.]