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Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong

Thu, May 14, 2009

Random Thoughts by Mark L. Fox

I am not sure Malcolm Gladwell got it completely right this time. I have always enjoyed his books and his unique perspective on things. But his latest book makes the following argument;

There is a story that is told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them – at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. The story of success is more complex – and a lot more interesting- than it initially appears.

Many stories in this book support the point he is trying to make. Like all his books, Outliers is a very interesting read. But too much emphasis is placed on successful people “are what they are” because of circumstances. Circumstances beyond their control in most cases.

I don’t believe it.

Of course circumstances have an effect on the outcome of your life or most anything for that matter. But it’s not the whole story. It’s not the most important factor.

The key word I found missing in Outliers was the use of the word; Choices.

I agree that culture and birthplace have a huge effect on the individual. Just look at it this way; there is an 85.7% chance that I can determine your religious beliefs by your Latitude and Longitude on this pale blue planet. That’s all I need to know, nothing else. Just one piece of data.

(I made up the 85.7% number, but I am guessing I am pretty close. Malcolm can study that in his next book. I’ll help him if he lets me.)

Let’s look at Choices again.

My parents were the bravest and greatest people to walk this planet. They adopted 4 kids in the 1960’s. That takes some balls to say the least. All four of us kids have different birth parents.

Sometimes people are unclear when I say my “real” parents. My real parents are the wonderful couple who adopted me as a 6 month old child. I would call my parents Outliers for the bravery of adopting 4 kids. I could never do that.

My father went to college, but my mother did not. I am the only one of the 4 kids in our family that went to college. I was not particularly encouraged to attend college. The choice was left up to me. It was the same for my brother and sisters.

I am not saying I am any better than my brothers and sisters, just that I made a personal choice to go to college. We all had the same choices and opportunities. We all could have gone to college. My parents would have found a way to support all of us if that was what we had chosen to do. We all grew up in the same environment as well.

My little sister quit school in the 10th grade and my older sister still lives at home with my father, at the age of 53. These are choices they have made.

I worked my way to becoming the youngest Chief Engineer of the Space Shuttle Program at the age of 31. I got there by the choices I made along the way. And as Malcolm would agree (I think) through a lot of hard work.

Math was not easy for me, but I got an undergraduate in Chemical Engineering and an MBA. Again through choices and hard work. Laplace Transforms still give me a migraine. Something about using Alice in Wonderland to solve differential equations baffles me.

Does my relative success have to do with my heredity?

I don’t believe so.

I had the chance to meet my birthmother at the age of 45 for the first time. When I met her she was homeless. She is a sweet lady, but I don’t believe my success is hereditary.

Here is my theory; success is 70% choices, 15% heredity, and 15% environment. That’s how I think it really pans out. Don’t ever say your heritage or environment is holding you back. Make a choice to change it.

My main point to this entire post is this; don’t think your success is based mainly on culture and birthdates. It is mostly based on the choices you make and the hard work you put in to it. Malcolm makes the point that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become really good at something. That makes a lot of sense.

But Choices and hard work will trump “circumstances out of your control” any day of the week.

Choices can make you an Outlier.

Mark L. Fox
slyasafox.com

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4 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong”

  1. Dan Jacobsen says:

    Mark,

    You bring up some interesting points in this article. I have to agree with you that success comes mostly from hard work and choices.

    Also have to agree with you that math didn’t come easy for you! 75% choices, 15% heredity, 15% environment, lets see, that would be 105% !! LOL

    Oh well keep up the good work, your posts are stimulating and insightful.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for the catch…..I changed it. I had kicked the numbers around several times trying to decide what was the right formula

  3. Cash says:

    Dude, choices sure make a difference, but if U look at those people in Gladwell’s book, there’s one thing that they have all in common.

    For exceptional people like that, it wasnt a matter of choice, it was a matter of “need”. Thats right, they were either addicted to their work, or they needed to do, what they did, real bad.

    Then, the only thing U need are positive circumstances that’d allow U to continue in doing that and thus make your 10000 hours.

    I, for example, am an artist. I come from lowish-class family and have no graduate or art-related education whatsover. In spite of that, in last five years (iam 25 now) i already had three exhibitions (2 in London, 1 in Paris) and sold most of my works. People say i have a great talent and insight. I am also very good at math as i possess the ability to look a lot deeper at things than most people and subsequently understand them.

    But i had positive circumstances as well, as i spent a lot of time (about 2.5 yrs) in company of young artists “with right connections” and only thanks to them i was able to produce enough art for my first exhibition.

    See, hard work is essential to becoming successful, so is environment.

    Choices? U cant really choose. I know i cant. It would ruin my life for christ sakes’D

  4. Gladwellologist In Chief says:

    Gladwell famously said in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper to describe his 10,000 hours theory that “Mozart was producing absolute garbage at 11″.

    This is the core of Gladwellology. Learn it. Study it. Worship it.

    Because Gladwell is great at taking great ideas out of depths of his *sshole.

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