Extraordinary Accomplishment

Strategy Matters

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” [su_spacer]

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]SO[/su_dropcap] SAID Thomas Edison. He had plenty to perspire about after 1,000 attempts to finally invent the light bulb in 1879. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book “Outliers” (2011) explores what it takes to achieve extraordinary accomplishment. He poses the question: Are certain individuals blessed with innate gifts or are other environmental factors involved, or perhaps a combination of both that lead to great accomplishment? Ask yourself, what truly separates Michael Jordan from an amateur in basketball, Warren Buffett from an average investor in the stock market, and 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich from this writer in literature? Gladwell offers research, opinion, and vivid stories to uncover the mystery behind extraordinary accomplishment. You may be surprised by what you learn, as it requires far more than just being smarter than someone else or the most talented athlete to achieve outlier status.

Let’s first understand what it truly means to be an outlier. Dictionary.com defines the term as “someone who stands apart from others of his or her group, as by differing behavior, beliefs, or religious practices.” This begs the question: How does one stand apart, and what does it take for the likes of Jordan, Buffett, and Alexievich to become an outlier?

Some may call it grit and determination, others may say random events, luck of the draw. Gladwell argues that to become an outlier, it takes at least 10,000 hours of effort to study, learn, & practice in order to stand out from others, until a level of competence is achieved. With a nod toward Thomas Edison, it takes a lot of perspiration before one can master a particular skill. There are no shortcuts to becoming an outlier regardless to how smart or gifted someone might be. Jordan spent years practicing basketball before he became great. Same goes with Bill Gates and programming, Elon Musk and breakthrough innovations, and Jack Ma and global ecommerce. Nor does one have to be a genius to excel in a particular field. Albert Einstein is believed to have had an IQ of 150. Is someone with an IQ of 195 30% smarter than Einstein? No! Once above a certain threshold, say around 120, a high IQ does not directly correlate to extraordinary achievement. There are other factors involved that influence an outlier outcome. Of particular interest is a famous study (1921–1986) that tracked 1,470 children with very high IQs from primary school into adulthood. The theory was that gifted individuals with exceptionally IQs would in most situations achieve extraordinary feats. As proved over time, the results are not what you might expect, where about a third of the subjects ended up falling far short of outlier status.

To illustrate what it takes to become extraordinary, Gladwell cites how the education institution KIPP Academy works with underprivileged students with average-plus IQs, and transforms them into high-performers with graduation and college acceptance rates higher than many private and esteemed public schools. KIPP accepts mostly minority students whose parents never went to college yet wanted their children to advance through education. As Gladwell describes, it takes a lot grit and determination to get through KIPP. An interesting comparison is made between the number of school days in Japan and the United States, at 243 and 180 days on average, respectively. At a difference of 63 days, should we be surprised that Japanese students score better on standardized tests than their U.S. counterpart? Clearly there are other factors to education than the number of school days, but the point Gladwell makes is that outliers take advantage of the opportunities available to them, they learn, work hard, and make sense of the world that escapes others. It is the steady accumulation of advantages over time that allow outliers to position themselves for even greater opportunities, whether it be in higher education or career choices that would otherwise not be available.

Gladwell argues that the outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

Their success is NOT exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky — but all critical to making them who they are.”[su_spacer]

What is gained from the book is a sense of validation to a work ethic that was drilled into many of us by our elders. I’m reminded of how many of our ancestors came to America with empty pockets, yet with plenty of grit & determination to do what was necessary to succeed. (Social welfare as we know it today did not exist back then.) They took advantage of whatever opportunities that existing at the time, worked hard, and persevered in order to “make it” in the new world. We’re seeing this same type of outlier mentality around the world in the 21st century. Take China, for instance. The number of Chinese who have recently moved out of poverty is equal to about double the population of the entire United States. Much of the credit goes to a sense of self efficacy among Chinese workers who took advantage of new opportunities. Alec Ross in his just released book “The Industries of the Future” describes how outliers are emerging from unlikely places where new possibilities and hope have recently formed, such as in Estonia, Chile, and Rwanda.

The final chapter is dedicated to Gladwell’s life story, beginning with his Jamaican grandmother’s grit and determination. The story reminds me of what my great grandfather Johan endured as a Chicago grocer who sold primarily to fellow German immigrants in the late 19th century. As you read the book, certain lessons jump out, some of which may tempt you to retell them to your children, grandchildren, and close friends. Both my boys, actually young adults, are in my thoughts and wishes when thinking about what it takes to achieve extraordinary lives, both in career and society at large.

The book Outliers is a well-written, uplifting read that brings to life the work ethic many of our ancestors practiced in seeking extraordinary accomplishments in their time. To this author, the main take away is that outlier status is achievable to those who truly want it and are willing to invest the time and take full advantage of opportunities and random events that lead to extraordinary accomplishment.

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