Outliers: What Malcolm Gladwell Taught Me About My Own Shortcomings

It took me a while to actually sit down and read the book “Outliers,” by Malcom Gladwell.  Many times I had seen the book referenced, and, having heard so much about it via these secondary sources, I always assumed I did not need to read the primary source.  In fact, I went as far as to indicate or maybe even say to people that I had read it when I had not.  But, then I reached a ‘tipping point’ –  I had heard it referenced by so many trusted sources – people doing the things I aspire to do, people that are the things that I aspire to be, that I had to read it first hand.  And I am glad I took the time.

I had just completed chapter 8: ‘Rice Paddies and Math,’ when an insight flashed in my mind so strong (for me) that I was forced to stop the book and write it down.

The entire book up until that point proffers a different explanation for the success of the extraordinarily successful. People like Bill Gates and The Beatles.

The claim is that, yes, they had talent, but talent though necessary, is insufficient for ascendancy to world-class performance. Indeed, perhaps, it it not even the major factor.

Gladwell implicates things like culture, opportunity, legacy, and, perhaps above all, hard, precise work and practice, all over and above, or at least beside, genetic ability.  Indeed, I have seen the same ‘talent myth’ ethos echoed in numerous pieces since; Greene’s Mastery, Syed’s Bounce, Dweck’s Mindset, Grant’s Originals to name a couple.

So, what was my insight?

Well, one piece of this insight, I had already recognized about 6 months ago.  That is, I have never really put 100% effort into almost anything that I have ever pursued.

I also realized, that though I had not done this, I had gained some sort of fabricated reputation for being a ‘hard worker,’ whether in sport, classroom, or elsewhere.

And, I believe most of the reason why this half-truth has been purported is my own very honed ability to inspire that perception in people.  That is, I can convince someone through artful storytelling that I am something that I am not.  Not completely, that is.

What’s interesting here, is that I do not actually have the ability to lie very well.  I have a good and working conscience.  I cannot just make something up and go about my day like some do, lest my tell tale heart begin to beat out of control.  In fact, I have gotten myself into trouble at my job for this very aspect.

But what I can do, sometimes, if I’m not careful, is to stretch the truth just enough to come off as better than I am.

It is important to realize here that I do work somewhat hard, and I have achieved some things due to that work.  But it is nothing like the reputation.

And this can readily be confirmed by the actual proficient people (the ‘Proficients’) in each arena in which I am shrouded as successful and hardworking.  So who are the Proficients? The Proficients are the ones who are, in fact, good or great – and they know where I actually stand in the ranks.

For instance, I was supposedly a good lacrosse player.  I even won some accolades.  But the Proficients in that world realize that I’m really no better than perhaps a tad above average + hustle

And thank goodness for these people, or I might convince myself of the truth of some of these not-quite-truisms.

But the other pieces of this insight are the more important.

Gladwell’s Four Factors of Elite Success

The idea is that there are at least 4 factors that contribute to elite success – that is, success that impacts the world in a positive way.  They are:

  1. Talent
  2. Opportunity
  3. Hard Work
  4. Precision.

A close observer might notice a distinction in (1) and (2) as compared to (3) and (4).  The distinction is that (1) and (2), are more largely due to external factors, while (3) and (4) depend on the individual.

So let’s call them External and Internal factors.  That is, you are born with so and so strengths, weaknesses and proclivities, and you come across opportunities along the way, some more than others, many of which are out of your control.  For now, let’s leave aside the possibly internal pieces of the External factors such as the ability to recognize an opportunity (pattern recognition) which may in fact be a workable skill. On the other hand, hard work and precision seem largely under one’s control.

Two other suggestions.  The first is that the whole of these (4) factors is greater than the sum of the parts.  That is, you probably need all, and then you can produce extraordinary results.

The second idea is that these factors may work on a weighted and sliding scale.  So that if you are lower in talent and opportunity, you must work harder and with more precision to make up for your lack of ability and to take advantage and recognize your scant opportunities.

But If, on the other hand, you are Lebron James, you might be able to get to, say, the NBA, mostly on the back of talent and opportunity (opportunity in his case may have come from sheer size and talent)– though eventually, if you want to be the absolute best, you will need the other factors to come along (which they since have, it seems to me).

Now, getting closer to my self-insight, I believe, based on what I have read and experienced, that hard work and precision are the equalizers.

Everyone has their opportunities and their talent, but they can adjust the throttle on effort and precision as much as they would like (or can muster) in order to achieve their goals.  I also believe that I have not done this throughout the course of my life, on any kind of consistent basis to achieve the levels of production that I desire.

But then why!? If I desire these goals, why have I not worked hard for them?!! Why have I not put forth this effort?  Is lack of ability to put forth maximum effort?  Am I lazy?  Lack of dexterity to be precise?  Lack of desire to do such things?  Or is it something else?

I believe it is the ladder – and here is why.

My Wayward Goal

First, on the matter of effort or hard work.  It is not that I do not put forth effort or do not work hard on some level. In fact, I believe my effort level equates to what I have calculated to be the ‘minimum effective dose’ (MED).  That is, the minimum amount of effort to accomplish the goal, and no more, on the theory that any more effort is a waste of time and potentially harmful via opportunity cost or some such other cost.  This effort typically has equated to the scholastic 89.5% – rounded up to an A-.

I also do not believe that it is not within me to put forth maximum effort, or, rather, the amount of effort that would rightly be required to accomplish the goals I desire.  I have in fact shown it in spurts.

On the matter of precision, it is much the same.  I do use some precision and I have, at times applied more of it.

Then what is the issue?

Well, one interesting thing is to review the situations in which I have applied the higher levels of precision and effort.  Typically, they have come at the times when I have been challenged to point that I was effectively provoked to try harder and more accurately.

For example, being remonstrated for a poor effort, and having my abilities called into question – a matter of pride.  Or, at times when I have been frustrated or challenged directly in argument, I have (sheepishly) changed the conversation to one bearing on semantical linguistics, ripping the focus away from substantive argument.  That is, I raised the level of linguistic precision that I required from my adversary, pedantically, in order to win at something.

Now, both of those examples seem to be terrible motivators; in the one instance pride and the other need to win.  In other words, the come from Dweck’s Fixed Mindset.

With a goal of true accomplishment, betterment of character and betterment of the world, those will not suffice.

But there is another limited example in which I have applied effort and precision for a more useful motive – and this happened in sports.

The Virtue of Sport: a Growth Mindset

You see, in sports, the lack of factors (1) and (2) are much more readily apparent for a guy like me.  Particularly when I was playing defense.  It was here that it was frequently obvious to me the deficient level at which I was starting from. [Read about how my coach inspired this here.]

It often took no more than coming out onto the field or court and standing next to my opponent, or perhaps running beside him for a few seconds before I realized my decided disadvantage in size or athleticism.

That is, his movements were more fluid; his stride more graceful; his jump was more explosive and his trunk more powerful. And then of course, he towered over me.

When I was faced with this kinesthetic / physical disadvantage, I knew that I would have to increase my effort and precision in order to compete. I would have to try harder and even care more in order to beat him to the spot, or to the loose ball, or to take the charge and somehow level the playing field. It was in those moments where the sheer will to get there and the precision of my angle to the spot or the ball would make all of the difference.

[Incidentally, the aphorism ‘luck is when hard work meets opportunity’ hung like a beacon on the wall of my high school football coach’s classroom and the phrase was emphatically drilled into my head by his incessant repeating of it; he a product of a particularly non-B.S.-type of family and a victim (or maybe beneficiary) of the same chronically under-sized and under-atheltic syndrome in his own playing days.  Something he overcame, thus cementing the possibly of such perseverance it in his head]

It was also here that the advantage gained from my ability to recognize patterns was more readily apparent.  I would pick up the rhythm of an attackmen’s stick, or I would see a play develop and be able to anticipate future movement.  And then I would haul ass to get there before this behemoth, or he would run me over.

One reason this urgency and clarity may have been absent in the more intellectual arenas in that I always thought that I could somehow use my other skills (e.g. schmoozing ability) to get where I needed to be.

But even here, even in the arena of sport, I STILL did not apply the effort I needed to in order to achieve high accomplishment.  For example, I did put in some hours of practice on my basketball shot, or throwing a lax ball at a wall, or running one-on-one drills or running routes — but NOT elite amounts.  I didn’t put in 3 hours a day, I put in 1.

So why then?  Why did I not?!  I have come up with a two-facet explanation.

The Realization and Correction

First, it isn’t that a MED approach does not work.  What was broken was my calculation as to what that minimum amount of effort should be.  An 89.5 for instance is good enough for some things, but it isn’t good enough for elite achievement.  This barely grants you admission into the conversation of elitism.

But barely in the top 10% isn’t what changes the world.  Top 1% changes the world.  So then then the first issue is that (a) my calculation was off and (b) I did not recognize this fact.

Second, and of much more ultimate importance, my goal was incorrectly set.  I had set my sights on good grades or making All-American and other such sort of surface-level, materialistic measures of success. I wanted to appear successful to both my contemporaries and to the authorities so that I could continue my ascendance.  But this is the incorrect goal.  (NOTE: I still struggle from this need to appear studious or cool or good or whatever. It is toxic. But I am working on it.  Or, at least, I have identified it).

The goal should be actual, not merely superficial, learning.  And, actual, not merely perceived betterment of character and skill.  The overall goal, to achieve greatness (for me, meaning betterment of character and positive and significant impact on the world).

To get there, the skills and the improvements must be so honed and so precisely practiced, that they become programmed into intuition and reflex.  It is to this level of subconscious incorporation that the Michael Jordan’s have their jump shot ability, that they are able to not actively think about making a jumper when the game is on the line, but to rely on their exhaustively-practiced, and therefore ingrained ability to simply shoot the ball with the correct touch and accuracy.

This is the same way that a well-practiced chess player knows the next four moves (as pointed out by Josh Waitzskin in The Art of Learning) or a great mathematician like Einstein or Newton discovers something world-altering.

These things did not just come to them out of nowhere.  Someone who believes that misses the 10,000 hours (as Gladwell points out based on the work of Ericcson) of work they put in before this, working through these issues.

According to learning specialists and neuroscientists, these ‘eureka’ moments come in times of relaxation, but there certainly was little relaxation prior to the actual moment.  It is like giving someone credit for only the exact moment they summit the mountain, and ignore the 5 days it took to fight to the top.

Conclusion and Plan

So, where does that leave me?

Well, I have had three distinct problems.  Or, rather, three distinct pieces of the same big problem missing: (1) miscalculation of the effort / precision required, (2) an incorrect goal, and (3) recognition of each of those errors.

I believe that I have at least eradicated the third piece – that is, I have recognized these things.  This entry is in fact the hard evidence of that fact.

The work left to do is to achieve the others but in reverse order.

That is, I must first correct the target.

For as I have learned from many (though the exact sources escape me at the moment) that achieving things within constraints is much more realistic than haphazardly doing so.  The effort applied might be inefficiently done so if you have no set target because you might take steps that are not in the direction of achieving that goal – you might take superfluous or indirect steps.  E.g. if I ask you to tell me a joke, you might struggle to think of one – but if I say tell me a knock-knock joke, you can easily think of one.  The constraints create this more powerful and directed thinking.

The second thing I need to do is to actually apply the effort; to put in the hours and do so precisely and purposefully.  I do not think this will be an issue, as I have recognized the new MED and I would have recognized the loftier goal.

Ok, now, let’s get to work…









4 Comments on “Outliers: What Malcolm Gladwell Taught Me About My Own Shortcomings”

  1. Love the article! It seems like an overwhelming undertaking. Hope you can reach your goals and inspire some of us to reach ours.

    1. Tall order for sure, Scotty. It seems worth it though, don’t you think? I’ll giver ‘er a go.

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