Author: Malcolm Gladwell
I loved Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and this is his latest. Though the title’s awkward, it’s about leaders — people outside the norm, who stand out. Gladwell’s goal is to change the way we think about such people. Our assumption is that they are extraordinarily gifted, geniuses, but he reveals that it’s much more about hard work than talent, and that luck, timing, and culture play huge roles in who we become. He destroys the myth of the “self-made” man, the idea that someone can rise from nothing to be extraordinarily successful, showing via statistics and stories and scientific studies that talent or genius alone is useless without the proper environment for that to grow. For example, he reveals that overwhelmingly kids in Canada’s hockey league are born in the early months of the year. That same trend follows through school and into the professional league as well: most are born in January, February, and March. Why is that? It’s not that talented hockey players aren’t born at other times, but that they never get a chance to develop. That’s because the enrollment cut-off for the league is January 1, so kids born in those early months tend to be the biggest and strongest, and stand out. Thus they are given more training and attention, are groomed to be stars by putting them into more competitions and special programs, and of course they use that extra experience and go pro and succeed. This effect is seen not just in hockey, but all sporting programs all over the world. Gladwell shows that similar things happen in education and even historic events: if you were unlucky enough to be born at the wrong time, for instance, you might have reached age 18 right as a major war was in progress and been drafted, or a tragedy like the Great Depression or an epidemic could have completely changed the world available to you. Gladwell shows how tech leaders like Bill Gates succeeded not because they were that much more brilliant than anyone else, but because they had the right set of skills at the right time, catching the computing revolution as it was being born.
What does all this mean to you and me? It means that we need to rethink our views of success. We need to change how we educate. In one study he shows that kids from lower income areas do just as well as those from higher income areas, but only if they work harder (for instance, going to school year around instead of taking the summer off). It turns out that kids with economic advantages are simply given more opportunities to learn year around, while those from disadvantaged homes tend to be stuck watching TV instead of having books and workshops and summer camps and such. Once you get both on the same playing field, their chances of success — of getting into good colleges and good careers — are about the same. Speaking of that, it also turns out that going to an Ivy League college is not necessarily a guarantee of success, nor is graduating from a lesser school. You just need “enough” schooling; the specifics aren’t as significant. All this means that everyone can succeed if they work hard, which is a far cry from the general assumption that some people are just “smart” or that some people just “get” math, etc. In truth, it’s all about how hard you work, and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. If you’re not prepared when those doors open, you’ll miss them and miss out.
This is a fascinating book — highly recommended. I will point out one caution, however. I read this while flying to and from California and there’s a whole section about the causes of airplane crashes that might make for uncomfortable reading if you’re a nervous flyer. (It didn’t bother me — I actually found it comforting to know why planes crash — but I might have picked a different book for my trip if I’d known that was in there.)