“No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone,” stresses Gladwell in the book.
“The problem is we assume that being willing to work hard and being ambitious is enough, but it’s not enough,” Gladwell told Bulletin Today.
Horatio Alger’s characters may have succeeded against all odds, but their successes were just as much luck as pluck. The Beatles may have taken America by storm “overnight,” but it took a lot of 8- to 12-hour live gigs in Hamburg’s red-light district for them to learn to play as a band (and get in those early 10,000 hours)—an opportunity which not every would-be fab foursome is afforded.
“If you want to work hard, you still need that place to work hard,” Gladwell says. “When you look at the lives of successful people, you see these patterns of advantages; they were given gifts that allowed them to work harder, to exploit their talents.”
Honing the competitive edge
What Gladwell is referring to is something sociologists call “accumulative advantage.” Someone with an early talent will be encouraged, given better instruction, and more chances to hone skills than someone whose talent may be just a little less readily apparent. Over time, this leads to a big difference in skills between two people who may have started out with just a little discrepancy.
Those advantages make all the difference, Gladwell explains. Practice makes perfect, and people given more opportunities for practice will come closer to perfection than those who are not given such chances. Innate talent does matter, but there are no “naturals”—people who glide effortlessly into expertise—whether in sports or music or computer programming. Those whom we think of as immensely successful—those “outliers”—were generally the beneficiaries of some early anomaly that allowed them to get more practice in than others.
And for some, no combination of innate talent, ambition, effort and privileged upbringing will be able to combat the disadvantages that fate often hands out indiscriminately.
“There were brilliant people who just never made it in the world because they hit the Depression at the wrong time and they hit the Second World War at the wrong time,” Gladwell says. “Let’s be clear: The world is not fair. It’s always going to provide more opportunities for some than others.”
“The reason we have government and institutions that create policy is to try and even that up,” he continues. “The world sets up these inherent advantages for some and these enormous disadvantages for others. You’ve got to level the playing field.”
For someone who started his career at the conservative American Spectator and counted William F. Buckley among his heroes during adolescence, Gladwell professes what may seem surprising faith in government intervention.
“I used to be a conservative, and I am no longer,” Gladwell says. “But I don’t think of this book as being political one way or the other. It’s a defense of collective action. When I think of the proper role of government, it is to provide opportunities for people to help themselves.”
The formula for success
In the end, the Outliers formula goes something like this: Ability + Opportunity + Culture + Effort + Luck = Success.
This might be something we’ve always known, but would we be talking about it if Gladwell hadn’t done the pointing?
“This book is a call to action,” he says. “I’m hoping by showing people just how uneven the starting point is, I’ll motivate people to think of ways of evening that out.”
“It’s not easy to confront our cultural legacies and shortcomings, so it can seem daunting,” he adds. “But it’s necessary—and it’s possible—to change.”
(Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Nolan Brown is an assistant editor/web content producer for AARP Bulletin Today.