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The secret of our successes

Think you’re talented? Creative? Dare we say it: outstanding? Good for you—but if Malcolm Gladwell is right, that’ll only get you so far. He’s looked at the traits of successful people and found what they have in common: hard work and happy circumstance. So how do the merely talented get ahead?

Think you’re talented? Creative? Dare we say it: outstanding? Good for you—but if Malcolm Gladwell is right, that’ll only get you so far. In his latest book, Outliers, Gladwell turns his focus on the very nature of success itself, making some intriguing connections between The Beatles and Bill Gates, Canadian pro hockey players and Asian rice farmers. He’s looked at the traits of successful people and found what they have in common: hard work and happy circumstance. So how do the merely talented get ahead?

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Photograph by Brooke Williams

Outliers is subtitled ‘The Story of Success’. Do you think people hope some of that success will rub off on them?

One reviewer here described it as an anti-self-help book and that’s just what it is. It’s supposed to start a conversation about what we can do as a society to help people do better. The book is specifically intended to look beyond the individual.

Do you consider yourself an outlier?

I do. I’m an immigrant twice over [Gladwell was born in Britain to a Jamaican mother and English father, raised in Canada and now lives in Manhattan]. If you’re going to be an observer that’s a very useful position to have.

You highlight how Canadian hockey players who are born in December are disadvantaged compared to others in their age group who are born in January. You also point out leading figures in the computer revolution, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, were born around 1955, making them around 20 years old when the computer industry was in its infancy. What can someone who isn’t born at such a opportune time do?

In the case of the December hockey players, it’s up to us to change the rules. I suggest Canada should have two leagues, one for people who were born in the first half of the year, and one for people who were born in the second. That’s the only way you can solve that problem; if as a society you can step in and say the rules are wrong. That’s a wonderful metaphor for what I think we have to do in a lot of areas. We have rules that frustrate the achievements of certain types of people and in order to change that you have to acknowledge—in the case of hockey—that it isn’t a simple matter of the best talent rising to the top. It’s a combination of that and the rules we write for hockey players.

Trailblazers like Gates don’t succeed through virtue of their sheer talent alone but have to put in at least 10,000 hours of groundwork—and in Gates’ case, be fortunate enough to have free access to a university computer centre.

He recognises that. People like Gates, when they are wise about their paths, know that success is a complicated mixture of circumstance and their own contributions and you can’t separate the two. What I want is for people to soften our exclusive focus on individual contributions to success.

Is there no such thing as an overnight success?

Someone looks like an overnight success only when the person writing about them is lazy and hasn’t figured out where they came from. They’re overnight discoveries as opposed to overnight successes.

Of course, you need more than a high IQ to succeed—you also need some social savvy and practical intelligence.

Chris Langan [the so-called ‘smartest man in America’ with an IQ of 195] has not had a life that is successful by conventional terms, but he’s a profoundly interesting person. As a journalist I have a very selfish reason to do a lot of my journalism: I want to hang around with interesting people. Bill Gates isn’t interesting because he’s successful—he’s interesting and successful, and maybe he’s successful because he is interesting. To me, that’s what’s great about my job. I have the freedom to sit down with these characters, pick their brains and find what’s interesting about them.

New Zealand’s middle distance running prowess in the late 1970s seems impossible to explain—that a small country can do that! But New Zealand was incredibly efficient in how it found and developed its talent in that area

You talk about the cultural legacies of different countries, but what can a small country like New Zealand do to improve its standing in the world?

A lot of the book is about how inefficient societies are at developing their talents. Look at a country like Canada, which is larger than New Zealand but not by that much. I start with the example of Canada and hockey, which is something that Canadians care passionately about but they’re also incredibly inefficient in how they exploit the talent of their country. It says that if small countries are savvy about the exploitation of human potential, they can compete with the large countries. Being smart about how you promote achievements can more than overcome the disadvantages of size.

I’m a big runner and if you remember back to the time of New Zealand’s middle distance running prowess in the late 1970s [when John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax dominated the sport], it seems like an impossible thing to explain—that a small country can do that! But not if you think there was a period when New Zealand was incredibly efficient in how it found and developed its talent in that area.

How do you feel about other similarly themed social psychology books such as Freakonomics, Wikinomics and The Long Tail that have appeared following the success of The Tipping Point?

There’s clearly a kind of movement. I always describe people as experience-rich and theory-poor. Most of us lack ways of making sense of the things in our lives. My books are part of this attempt by journalists and academics to supply theories and ways of organising experiences for people. It’s something that has perhaps become more necessary as the world has got more complicated.

Unlike those books, your work is not solely focused on business.

I don’t write exclusively business books because I don’t know enough about business to do that. But one of the wonderful things that has happened in business recently is the recognition that business people need to look outside their own world for ideas, insights and directions. That’s the niche my books have fallen into.

There was a sense at one point that business people only wanted to read books that were about business but that’s not true now. Business people wear many hats: they’re citizen, parent, they’re politically active or what have you. I don’t know if I would even consider my books to be primarily business books anymore, even though I first made my mark in that community.

How do you feel about the reviews that have criticised Outliers for being based around anecdotes rather than documented research?

If someone says it’s anecdotal, intended as a criticism, I always smile and think that sounds more like a compliment. I bristle somewhat at the term ‘anecdotal’. Anecdotes are things that last two paragraphs; this is a book about stories. In that sense, that’s the best way to describe it.

Some people like to think that storytelling is a lesser art but I don’t think so. It’s actually the highest art of all. Stories are what people respond to and remember and retell. Isn’t that what the point of writing a book is? I’m quite delighted to be called a storyteller.