Decoding the Recipe for Success

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

What makes an individual a great success? A stand-out in their field? An outlier? This question is at the heart of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book about the story of success. The book deconstructs success, showing the parts that make up the whole.

When I look at our communities, I see a lot of parallels. With many challenges facing rural communities, we would do well to take some notes regarding the recipe for success.

Gladwell’s book argues that society’s outliers, the Bill Gateses and the Beatles of the world, owe their success as much to their environment as to their individual skills and talents. The people who stand above the crowd are those who are at the right place, at the right time, with the right skill set to take advantage of those opportunities.

The book begins with a look at talent and the ago-old adage that practice makes perfect. We tend to assume that those who excel do so because of natural talent. While talent does play a role, it’s less important than you might think. The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the more their success seems to hinge upon preparation, or practice, over talent. It turns out that people have studied just how much practice makes perfect, it is about 10,000 hours.

A study was done looking at violists at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. The musicians were split by their professors into three groups; those who showed the talent to be world-class soloists, those deemed “good” and those who were unlikely to play professionally and instead intended to be music teachers in the public school system.

The study found that the only factor distinguishing the students at the top from those at the bottom was the amount of time they had spent practicing since beginning to play their instrument. The study found no student who floated to the top with a fraction of practice time, nor could they find any student who worked harder than their peers but were in the lower ranked groups.

By the time Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, he had reached his 10,000 hours of programming practice thanks to a very progressive school and his proximity to the University of Washington. Before the “British Invasion”, The Beatles had put in their 10,000 hours playing concert after concert in clubs in Hamburg, Germany. At times they performed for eight hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. This is encouraging, it tell us that in order to succeed, we don’t have to start out the best. We need a minimum level of talent or aptitude, and then, we need to practice.

The other key to great success is timing, something over which we have little control. Listing the 75 richest people the world has ever known yields an interesting fact; 14 are Americans, born within a nine year period. These men, such as John D. Rockefeller, were born in the 1830s and were uniquely positioned to take advantage of the dramatic transformational change in post-Civil War America. Those born earlier had their mind-set shaped by the Civil War era frame of reference. Those born later were too late, the railroads and manufacturing boom had already started without them.

The book also looks at how our cultural legacies can help or hinder our success. For example, why did Jewish lawyers dominate New York’s mergers and acquisitions business starting in the 1970s? Why were family feuds so dominant in the 1800s in the Appalachians? Why are pilots from certain countries and cultures more likely to become involved in a crash?

The thing about cultural legacies and the importance of timing is that once we know they exist, we can mitigate and we can work around them. We can practice and hone our skills.

I look at our communities and I wonder how we can use this knowledge to build our own success stories? I wonder what cultural legacies we have and whether they are helping or hindering us? We can use this knowledge to decode why some more rural towns flourish while others, with more advantages, don’t. We can do little about our location or our history, but knowing what we have, and what we don’t, means that we can put our future back into our own hands.


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