Malcolm Gladwell and Your Chance of Success

Posted on by in Books, Business, Leadership, Learning, Strategy

OutliersIf you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book on Outliers, you may want to soon. While I don’t agree with all his conclusions (the difficult part of using case studies and statistics is that conclusions are subjective), I do think his commentary is fascinating and worth reading.

One of the dominant themes is that what we often attribute to success— the self-made, hard-working, talented individual who rises from the ashes–isn’t entirely correct. There are often other forces in place. For example,

1. If you want to play hockey in Canada, it helps immeasurably if you’re born in January, February or March of any given year.

2. If you want to make it big in the computer world, it sure would help if you were born in the mid 1950’s so that you’d come of age when computers were just breaking out of the punch card, one at a time, processing system (Bill Gates, 1955; Steve Jobs, 1955; Scott McNealy, 1954; Eric Schmidt, 1955; Steve Ballmer, 1956).

3. If you want to be a wealthy lawyer in NYC, it helps if you are Jewish and were “banned” from the big white protestant firms (pre-1970’s) so that when litigation and M &A work, especially hostile takeovers (in the 1980’s) became the real deal, you were in position to take over.

4. If you want to be wealthy, it sure would have been helpful to have been born between 1831-1840. Of the top 75 wealthiest people the world has ever known (in current dollars, which make Bill Gates #37, Cleopatra #21 and John D. Rockefeller #1), 20% of them were born within ten years of one another.

Now, clearly, there were lots of people born between 1831-1840 who did not become incredibly wealthy. However, there have been hard-working, talented, entrepreneurial leaders in every decade. Yet, despite that, still 20% came from one decade.

So, what’s the takeaway? Well one is the takeaway of choosing to be on the forefront of whatever change is taking place in your time period. Clearly we can’t control the decade we’re born into, but we can take advantage of the change that is happening–and choose to be on the forefront of whatever is happening. My observation is that too many people choose to cling to what they’ve done or focus on what sells now.

However the real winners are those who are willing to part with the past and embrace what’s coming–before everyone else does. Hard-work, talent, discipline, risk, etc. are all critical ingredients to success, but they also need to be tied to time in which we live–and what’s next.

So, in your line of work, what’s the next new thing? Once you decide that, how can you position yourself and your company to be there before everyone else is?

Remember, being number nine in a line of ten lemonade stands is rarely a great place to be. However being number one is!

To your accelerated success!

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2 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell and Your Chance of Success”

  1. Ben 3 May 2009 at 5:47 pm #

    This type of thinking is exactly why I started Blue Corona(marketing measurement and internet marketing) and why I continue to rant and rave about LBA (location based mobile advertising)!
    Although, I don’t know how “on the forefront” any of us ‘mericans can be – from what I hear the Asian gen-pop is more technically advanced than many of our tech leaders!
    Great post.

  2. Bruce Johnson 3 May 2009 at 9:38 pm #

    You’ve been a busy reader and commenter today! And yes, you’re right! I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m sure Steve Jobs’ move into the iPhone wasn’t just because they were at a meeting one day and everyone was complaining about their cell phones. I’m guessing it was the sheer number of cell phones worldwide (in the billions) vs. the computer (in the hundreds of millions).

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