Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. He is a brilliant writer and reporter. He has created another blockbuster with his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that Gladwell did it all on his own. In fact, that is precisely the premise of his book: People who are successful are so not only because of talents and gifts, but because of circumstances, opportunities, their cultural background, and sometimes, a little bit of luck.
Gladwell argues that those who are successful are so because they stand on the shoulders of giants. I believe Gladwell was extremely fortunate to meet Gary Klein and Helen Klein. These are two researchers, authors, and thought leaders in the field of expertise and decision-making whose work no doubt inspired aspects of both Outliers and Blink. I don’t know the circumstances of how Gladwell initially met the Kleins, but I do know that they had become acquainted by 2003, prior to Blink being published.
Gladwell was a keynote speaker at the Naturalistic Decision Making Conference in Pensacola, Florida in early 2004. During that conference, Gladwell’s speech centered on material from one of his chapters in the soon to be published Blink. This was a good audience with whom to vet the ideas, as many of the people in the group were the ones who shared with Gladwell the research behind how people make decisions. In fact, for nearly 30 years, these researchers had been studying, reporting, and helping people make better decisions in extreme circumstances and environments. This was a room of experts on intuitive decision-making. Gladwell interviewed them, listened to their stories, tracked down research they referenced, and found a way to tell the story of their work in such a way that would appeal to broad audiences. Brilliant.
Reading Blink, and having worked at the Klein’s company for several years early in my career, I recognized familiar stories, people, and examples in Gladwell’s writing. I recently finished Outliers and again saw familiar facts and figures. No doubt that Gladwell fared very well by making the Kleins’ acquaintance.
Gladwell shares that across domains – jobs, tasks, and contexts – it typically takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. This is a oft-cited statement in the research on expertise. Gladwell also spends significant time uncovering how cultural thinking shapes and influences decision making. He cites Geert Hofstede’s work on dimensions of cultural thinking that shape behavior – and success. He talks about the higher incident of commercial airline crashes in the 1990’s involving pilots and co-pilots from high power distance cultures – where it is not the cultural norm to disagree with one’s superior. When those pilots were retrained in their communication style when operating an aircraft, the safety records drastically improved and the airlines were once again considered “successful.” This work and these examples were highlighted in Helen Klein’s research on cultural decision making.
So what should take away from Outliers? We should remember that a person’s success can’t and shouldn’t be attributed to brilliance alone. This should be comforting for those striving for personal accomplishment and success. In fact, what if we were able to replicate, repeat, or make available the opportunities and circumstances that helped someone become successful? What if we could learn how to learn and think like successful people? What if we studied what they studied, interviewed them, got inside their heads and learned to see the world from a different vantage point? That’s certainly what Gladwell did in researching and writing his books, and he was able to bring scientific phenomena and research to the masses.
Imagine what is possible if each of us continually find ways to stand on the shoulders of giants who’ve come before us.