The Paradox of Success

An analysis of Malcolm Gladwell’s greatest works

Back in high school we always had to do a summer reading assignment before the beginning of every school year, and for the most part the books were extremely boring and painful since all I wanted to do was hangout with my friends. More often than not I delayed my reading until the last couple weeks because no book really stood out, except one. Sitting on the beach for my annual family vacation I decided to start on my reading and pulled out this years novel not really know anything about what the book was even about or who the author even was. Looking at the book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, I thought I would have an open mind since it seemed a little different from what I usually read. 3 days and 304 pages later I finished the book and gained a curious fascination with Malcolm Gladwell and his sociological theories.

Since joining The New Yorker staff back in 1996 Malcolm Gladwell has written over a hundred articles to date and has also published a handful of books as well. From his novels, Blink to Tipping Point, Gladwell has showcased his vast knowledge in the field of sociology and its practical application to real world issues. He uses his theories of sociology and social psychology to explain why and how things happen they way they do in many of his articles he has published. Along with this, the idea of success and how society may influence a person are some of the biggest themes he references in in his most famous pieces of work. Throughout this composite of some of his greatest pieces, Gladwell analyzes how success isn’t always as it seems and how there is a hidden aspect to every success story which makes them all unique. Along with the idea of success, other articles included discuss the affect of perception on society and how it influences areas such as college acceptance and the U.S News annual college rankings.


“Outliers: The Story of Success”

“It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”

Often looked at as one of Malcolm Gladwell greatest books, Outliers showcases how and why some of the most successful people in the history got to where they are. The book examines different case studies regarding these highly successful induviduals or groups and explains the factors that went into their success. One of the examples he gives is by looking at the best Canadian hockey players and when they were born. From research conducted, a majority of the Canadian hockey players who are in the N.H.L. were born in the first 3 months of the year. The reason for this? In many hockey leagues in Canada, the cutoff date for the age levels is January 1st, so someone who is born within the first 3 months of the year has an upper hand since they are allowed to play a level down compared to someone born in the last 3 months of the year. In such a competitve sport like hockey in Canada coaches begin to develop players at the earliest age, and that one extra year of eligibility will have a lasting impact.

Gladwell later goes on to look at the success of some of the most famous people in history, such as The Beatles and Bill Gates. While both of these cases seem to be very different they are both linked by one common theory. Through the book, he applies the ten thousand hour rule to both of them and it turns out they both complied with the rule.The ten thousand hour rule is a theory developed back in the 1980’s to illustrate the idea that in order to become an expert in a specific area it takes 10,000 hours of practice in that area.The Beatles did over 1,200 small shows in Germany before they finally hit it big. Those 1,200 small shows they preformed in equated to over 10,000 hours of practice and then they finally released there first big hit. The same occured with Bill Gates who spent 15 years learning how to program, attended Harvard University and eventually dropped out before he founded Microsoft. The ten thousand hour rule is used throughout the entire book and applied to these cases and many others. This rule is mentioned very often, but it is shown in a way that is very simplistic and easy to understand and comprehend why it happens. This complexity is explained more in the section regarding the article Complexity and the 10,000 hour rule.

While it does take hard work and dedication to be successful as shown in this book, there is also an element of luck involved with all these success stories. Maybe luck is a bad word, how about being born in the right place at the right time? Many of the case studies looked at within the book have a combination of both. Bill Gates benefited from being born into an era where technology was just starting to evolve. He attended a private highschool which happened to have a computer club, and then secured an internship with a tech company. So by the time he got to Harvard he was well beyond the 10,000 hour minimum. Both The Beatles and Bill Gates were no doubt amazing talents but they also there is no denying they recieved often random and lucky opportunities thrown their way.


“Complexity and the 10,000 Hour Rule”

The New Yorker, 8.21.13

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

In the article Complexity and the 10,000 Hour Rule, Malcolm Gladwell explains how the ten-thousand hour rule often referred to in his book, Outliers, is much more complex than stated within the book.The ten-thousand hour rule means that to become an expert in any field, it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice or action within that field. But as he states in the article, “the ten thousand hour rule is an average, it may be above or below”. The rational for writing this short article is to rebuttal some of the negative backlash that was received following the publication of the book back in 2008. One of the criticisms towards to book was that the ten thousand hour rule was too broad and doesn’t really apply to every profession or activity. Often times in the book Outliers, Gladwell does seem to make complex ideas very simple and basic so an average person can understand the most complex thoughts.But in the article Gladwell does agree that it is much more complex. He explains that what he meant was that the preparation needed to become an expert is 10,000 hours but you also need a natural talent to go along with that practice.

Gladwell attending a seminar about his new concept, via businessinsider.com

Later on he also cites that the ten thousand hour rule is especially different for sports: in sports you have to be physically gifted and without that natural physical stature its almost impossible to succeed at the highest level. Take any athlete at the top of there game for example (LeBron James, Cam Newton, Bryce Harper), all of these men have put in years and years of work to be considered the best in there respected sport. But at the same time, they we’re also born with traits that allowed them to become as great as they are.

The application of this theory can’t really be proven to work for sports but instead to areas of cognitive thinking. One of the key examples he used within this article is chess players and how you can become a “master” at three thousand hours of practice. But a “master” level in world of chess is like being a Single-A baseball player, its relatively nothing compared to the real professionals. He believes that in order to be at one of the highest levels in the world of chess it would take between “10,000–50,000” hours. If you put that into years that is almost 10–50 years to become at the top of the game. In the area of athletics, there are naturals but with that takes practice and time in order to be at the top, but not everyone can practice for 10 years and become as good as some of the best. However in the field of cognitive thinking, Gladwell thinks a different view stating that, “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals”.


“The Order of Things”

The New Yorker, 2.14.11

The article, The Order of Things, looks into the U.S News annual ranking of colleges, which gives each college a numerical number formed by a committee of college representatives. The article begins by using an example of ranking of three different cars. By Gladwells standards, many rankings we see today are not all that they seem to be. In the case of the car example, he shows how the different variables and how much weight is put on those variables have an effect on the order of which they are ranked. And as he shows in the article, by changing or increasing the importance of some of the variables, the rankings change.

This example can be directly related to the college rankings and how they are generated. According to the most recent rankings they are based on the following criteria:

“Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%), Graduation and freshman retention rates (20%) ,Faculty resources (20%) , Student selectivity (15%) , Financial resources (10%) , Graduation rate performance (7.5%) , and Alumni giving (5%).”

Gladwell points out a startling fact about the rankings that should be noted: the biggest portion of the ranking (undergraduate academic reputation at 22.5%) is voted on by other university presidents. So basically, at a large university the president would rank all 250 schools given to him, which is insane to do since many of the presidents may not have even step foot on ALL 250 other campus’s. To ask these people to give an accurate ranking of 250 colleges, some they might not of even heard of, is absurd and results in rankings that are somewhat innacurate or based on opinion instead of metrics. When they see a school like University of Tennessee or Penn State University, they automatically have an assumption just based off of what they have heard about these places or how other people view these universities.

To prove this concept, Gladwell cites a study conducted back in the early 2000’s which sent a list of 10 law schools to lawyers, and other professionals in the field, and told them to rank them from best to worst. As expected Harvard and Yale were at the top while a school like Penn State fell in the middle of the pack. But there is on problem with this list: Penn State didn’t have a law school a the time of this survey. Why might these scholars rank them in the middle even though they didn’t even have a law school? Its all perception. Even though they didnt have a law school, Penn State is viewed as a middle of the road school and that why it was placed in the middle of this survey. This social perception shown is exactly what the U.S News rankings are, whether it is intended that way or not.

Another big negative of the U.S News rankings that Gladwell points out is the failure to factor in the price of these colleges into the rankings. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford may all be the best in the nation according to the rankings, but also are the most expensive by costing upwards of $60,000 a year. In order to make these rankings more complete, factoring in price of school would change the rankings completely. Getting the “most bang for your buck” is something most college applicants value because if someone can go to a school that offers a great program for a cheaper price then its a no brainer.

All these rankings are, according to Gladwell, are social perceptions of how a great (or bad) a school is. In context of the greater picture, Gladwell uses variations of different rankings to prove that many of these college rankings are manipulated in a way to show that public perception is the determining factor of the final rankings for the schools. In a bigger sense, its already telling us something we already know based on our social interactions with people and how society feels about these colleges.


“Getting In”

The New Yorker, 10.10.05

In the article, Getting in, Malcolm Gladwell takes a deeper look into college admissions, but instead places a focus on the Ivy League schools and what sets them apart from every other university (aside from being the academic hubs for United States colleges). Harvard University, along with all the Ivy league schools are viewed and have proven to be the best academic schools in the entire year. On a consistent year to year basis Ivy League schools post the highest average GPA, SAT, and ACT scores of incoming freshman. Its no secret that these schools have the smartest kids in the entire country. But what if i told you that academics was only one fourth of the total criteria the Harvard admissions office looks at when evaluating a potential student. Its true, since in the mid 1950’s Harvard and many other Ivy League schools look at academics along with social and personal qualities as well. As stated in the article the way they grade applicants is by the following:

“Information from interviews, references, and student essays was then used to grade each applicant on a scale of 1 to 6, along four dimensions: personal, academic, extracurricular, and athletic.”
Widener Library at Harvard University

By looking at these four different areas, it would be fairly obvious that the academic sphere is the most influential piece. But its not actually, beginning more than 50 years ago, the area of personal traits and habits has the most impact on whether you get into Harvard (or any Ivy League) or not. These ivy league schools aren’t very different from many things in life. They want to be socially viewed as a high academic institution but also look the part as well. Thats why, when recruiters come to a school for interviews with potential candidates they rank them on a scale of 1 to 4. According to Gladwell in the article, the rankings were composed by this:

“ 1 was “very desirable and apparently exceptional material from every point of view” and 4 was undesirable from the point of view of character, and, therefore, to be excluded no matter what the results of the entrance examinations might be.”

Even if an applicant had the best scores in the entire country, if they received that rating of 4, their chances of getting into one of these schools were nonexistent. Thats why these ivy league schools are so interesting is that, its often viewed they only take a look at academics but in fact that is just a common misconception and stereo type given to these schools. To be the best you have to only accept the best and this is illustrated with the following quote:

“Glimp believed implicitly what Krueger and Dale later confirmed: that the character and performance of an academic class is determined, to a significant extent, at the point of admission; that if you want to graduate winners you have to admit winners; that if you want the bottom quarter of your class to succeed you have to find people capable of succeeding in the bottom quarter.”

Much of this article can be related back to the previous article talking about college rankings,Order of things .Like the U.S News College rankings, which are based mainly off of perception given by people, the same goes for these Ivy league schools as well. They don’t want to just be seen as a school that attracts nerdy, quiet and awkward book worms. What they are looking for is someone who is academically superior but also plays and looks the part in a social setting. Someone who attends one of these prestigious schools not only has to act the part, by being academically gifted, but also has to look the part and go on and represent there school in best way possible.


“How David Beats Goliath”

The New Yorker, 5.11.09

“Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.” David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.”

How David Beats Goliath is yet another example of how Gladwell examines the ways people achieve success even under the greatest odds of failure. The article shows that even when faced with all odd against someone, taking an unconventional and very rare strategy may lead to some of the best results. Vivek Ranadivé, a tech mogul from Silicon Valley, decided to lead and coach his daughters basketball team even with very little to no basketball knowledge. The girls were undersized, not as athletic, and weren’t as talented basketball players as their opponents. Combine that with a coach who really didn’t know much basketball, and it was essentially a recipe for disaster. Ranadivé, being the innovator he was, knew there was a a way around all of deficits they faced and requested the help of basketball experts to formulate a game plan to combat this. But to make up for this, and overcome being the “davids” they were he applied unconventional methods in order to win. Taking a page from Rick Pitinos strategy of full court press, allowed the girls to overcome their weaknesses and lack of ability to win games. Underdogs aren’t supposed to win, they’re is a reason why the other team is favored and usually for a good reason.

The Redwood City teams success was mainly built off of the fact that many of the teams they played didn’t know how to fight back against this style of play. Most of them had never seen a team played this way and often crumbled underneath the pressure. Other coaches cried foul play and cheating when they saw this but in reality just like the players, they didn’t know how fight against this style either.

Much like in the article, Complexity and 10,000 Hour Rule and the book Outliers, these people have defied social norms and worked hard with an effective strategy to get to where they are. Gladwell, through the story telling of a young girls basketball team and other events, illustrates the idea that while for the most part the bigger, stronger more talented man wins, but on occasions the Davids go “toe-to-toe” with the Goliath’s and win. Much like the other top articles written by Gladwell in this composite, he applies social structures and patterns to determine results and show how and why things work the way they do.


“Talent Grab”

The New Yorker, 10.11.11

“In 2005, Barry Bonds, the little boy playing at Miller’s feet, was paid twenty-two million dollars by the San Francisco Giants — which is not only more than what his father’s teammates collectively received in their lifetimes but more than a good number of baseball’s owners ever made in a single year.”

When asked about who the most influential or important person in baseball is in the history of the game people usually have the same answer: George Steinbrenner, Babe Ruth, Bud Selig or any of the great owners and players this league has seen. But in fact the person who has made the biggest impact on the game and the one who was essentially the founder of the mega deals we see today was a man by the name of Marvin Miller. Believe it or not there was a time in the MLB where the average salary wasn’t $15 million dollars a year or where MLB players made around 50% of all revenue generated by the league. As hard as it is to wrap your mind around, MLB players prior to Miller running the union were getting payed next to nothing from what they could have. When Miller arrived to work for the MLB Players Union, it really couldnt even be considered a union since really there was no structure and the players had no say in what the league decided to do. Using his background from working with the steel unions he grew the revenue share from 10% to 50% and the average salary over grew 140 times from what it was when he arrived.

But as much as this article is about sports, it also can be related to social aspects as previously mentioned in other articles. The reason why this man was successful and grew the players demand for money was large in part due for the increase in demand of the baseball. Based on simple economic principles, a rise in demand leads to a rise in price. These baseball players were not organized in any way prior to Miller arriving, which hindered their ability to “collectively bargin” for more money being directed to the players. Professional baseball, at this point in time, was one of the most popular sports in the entire United States, yet there success was not being shown in what they were being payed.

Marvin Miller during the MLB baseball strike (via New York Times)

However, with the success of Millers accomplishments also comes with backlash 30 years down the road. Todays professional baseball players are some of the highest payed athletes to ever walk the earth. Even average or below average players,who rarely see the field,make more money in one season in 2016 than an entire franchise made back in 1980. Think about that for a second, why on earth should one man, apart of a 42 person roster, should be payed that much even if they don’t play that often? It all ties back to the success of Marvin Milers restructuring of the MLB players union. This path that he took the players on soon caught wind in all of the other professional sports, and before long almost every player in all the professional sports leagues were making over 1 million dollars. Thats more than most Americans will make in an entire lifetime, all to play a game.

While we can sit here all day and criticize the professional sports leagues for paying there athletes so much money, the blame on that falls back on ourselves. In the end, we as consumers determine the success of these sports leagues and ultimately determine there worth. Gladwell cites in this piece that the society as a whole places a large emphasis on sports and we ultimately decide the success of a business, such as a sports league, and with our attention drives the demand and in turn salaries for these men/women.


“Small Change”

The New Yorker, 10.04.10

“Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

In the article Small Change, Gladwell draws a unique comparison between the new age of revolutions appearing on social media and the old age civil rights protests in the the 1960’s and 1970’s. Gladwell starts off the article by talking about the sit-ins that were held in North Carolina in order to protest the segregation laws that were in place at the time. Throughout the article, Gladwell goes back and forth between these Civil Rights protests and how trying to accomplish the same thing through social media just isn’t possible.

Greensboro Woolworth sitins in 1965, via greensborositins.wordpress.com

One of the biggest reasons he gives for it not being possible to assemble a revolution over social media is the structure that it presents. With websites like Twitter or Facebook, we often don’t personally know many of our “friends” or”followers”. We only are friends with this many people on these sites to network. Social media is built off of the concept of networking and building connections between one another. While this is useful for other areas, it doesn’t serve a very effective use in activism. According to Gladwell, the most effective way that a protest takes place is through a hierarchal structure, which places a central leader at the top. Successful examples of this include Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. With social media movements this is often rarely seen, because there are rarely someone who is leading the movement. The networking strategy as described in the article often times has a hard time assembling goals and organizing large protests.

Another reason Gladwell gives to why the next revolution won’t occur on social media is because social media platforms are built around “weak ties”. Weak ties in this case means that many of the people you encounter on a social media are only acquaintances, not close friends whom you may have a large influence over. These weak ties he alludes to restrict people as to how much a person can ask you to do. According to Gladwell, he sums up this relationship of weak ties on social media perfectly with, “Social networks are effective at increasing participation — by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” This meaning that social media allows someone to participate more, but it lowers the enthusiasm someone feels towards an issue because often times they are not emotionally invested in the topic.

Success in the field of a political or social revolution is largely reliant on a combination of both of these two ideas. Looking back at social uprisings that have failed or have failed to come together are largely in part due to this lack of structure and weak ties between the members. The issue with the Black Lives Matter movement that we see today, is not because of what they stand for but because of there structure and how they are run. They don’t have a face of there organization and movement like we have seen with prior civil rights organizations. A social movement is much like a business, you need a CEO and a board of directors to control and run the company or else people don’t all believe and stand for a common goal. Without this organization, along with the weak ties, a social media revolution won’t be successful in any capacity.


“Most Likely to Succeed”

The New Yorker, 12.15.08

“But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.”

Much like in many of his other articles, Malcolm Gladwell compares two very different things and makes an odd, yet very compelling comparison between. This time, it happens to be between teachers in the modern day and quarterbacks transitioning from college football to the N.F.L. It seems as though these two things have remotely nothing in common. One goes to school to learn a profession in order to teach the youth their knowledge and the other “goes to school” only to be able to get to the next level and make millions of dollars. But there is one aspect between these two professions that draws them closer than ever: uncertainty.

College football has become one of the most popular sports in our country, with its dedicated fans and dynamic playmakers its always a sight to see. Leading the charge for a college football team and any football team is the quarterback. While many other positions played in college football are very easy to tell how they will translate into the N.F.L., the quarterback position is not. In college football, most pro-style quarterbacks run the spread, which essentially means they are always 7 feet behind then center with 4–5 wide receivers spread out on the line. In turn, it results in the defense to be spread out and allows for the quarterback to easily tell what defense the opposing team is running.This is where the problem lies for college quarterbacks. Being a quarterback in the N.F.L. is completely different, they don’t run the spread, and many times have to take the ball from under center. For the most part N.F.L. teams just don’t know how well a college quaterback will end up being, if they even succeed at all. They’re have been countless number of quarterback busts (aka Tim Couch, RGIII, Jamarcus Russell, etc.), and most has more busts than any other position in the N.F.L. According to Gladwell, this is referred to as “the quarterback problem” and describes it as this:

“There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that?”

Teachers in america have this quarterback problem as well. A teaching degree or teaching certificate really tells us nothing about the practical application of there ability to teach. Gladwell argues that in the case of a teacher, much like a quarterback, no one really knows how well they will perform or be able to succeed until they are “thrown in the fire” and given on hand experience with students. While it may be fairly obvious to tell if a quarterback is good or bad based off a couple of games, its very hard to tell a teacher is performing after one year. Most times it takes years, with ample data from standardized tests, to make a determination on how well a teacher is actually preforming.

This comparison is very odd and unsymetrical but thats what makes it fascinating. Trying to find the slightest similarity between “apples and oranges” can be some of the most intruiging ideas. And teachers and N.F.L. quaterbacks do share one key similarity that needs to be mentioned more. Just becuase a quaterback was a star in college and played at the top of there game, doesnt mean they will for sure be that great in N.F.L.. The only way to be a good proffessional quarterback is to play in actual games and prove yourself. Its like if we were elect Tim Tebow to the Hall of Fame before he entered the N.F.L., because we all know how that turned out for him. This same thing applies to teachers, it doesnt matter where you came from or graduated from, untill your proven to be an effective teacher in the classroom your just like a college quarterback.

Gladwell finishes the article by giving an example of how in the financial-advice field of work, and how they take anywhere from 20–30 apprentices for a few jobs. By doing them, they put them all to work in field, giving them a relatively low wage but while doing this the people evaluating them understand there true abilities instead of what there resume says. Gladwell suggests that schools should follow this same approach and it may cost taxpayers a substantial amount of money to hire multiple people for one position just to find one person to fill that void.


Conclusion

After looking into these pieces by Malcolm Gladwell its clear to see how he has grown to be a dominant writer in the 21st century. Being able to transform complex ideas to simple terms is a skill that most writers wish they could have. By reading these articles, I now have a deeper understanding of what it really means to be successful and the factors that go into that success. Almost everything he wrote about were all new concepts to me and also retaught me things I thought I knew before. Many of the ideas he presented in these articles are applicable to real life scenarios and overall they are good for every person to know. Following my journey with Malcolm Gladwell I feel as though I gained a lot with his writings and felt if he was always trying to teach the reader something. Whether it be his story of success, or how colleges are ranked in U.S News, there is no denying Gladwell’s powerful writing.

Check out this cool visual of Malcolm Gladwells Outliers:

Malcolm Gladwell interview on Anderson Cooper: