But How Do I Become An Outlier?

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I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's newest book, Outliers. And I'll start this post by noting that I am a fan of The Tipping Point and never got around to Blink. I read the book because I agreed to present the material to a workshop, and talk about how to apply Gladwell's theories to the not-for-profit sector. Being a cynic, I contemplated getting up in the front of the room and saying "you can't" and sitting down.

Because this presentation was to be attended by my boss, I decided not to do this. But here is what I essentially think of this book: like many other reviewers I've found online, it really seems to state the obvious, albeit in an interesting way. We are not only the product of our own intellect, gifts, tenacity and effort (10,000 hours of it), but also of a confluence of coincidence that is our birth. And taking advantage of the circumstances, cultural heritage and even date of their birth is the thing the outliers in Gladwell's book have in common. So The Beatles, Bill Gates, Carnegie and even Gladwell himself are outliers and can contribute their success not only to themselves but to their ancestors, their community, their socio-economic level and etcetera.

So I gave this information in my presentation, told a few of the stories from the book and essentially ended with the fact that I didn't see this as wildly applicable to directing your own path. If becoming an outlier is somehow related to chance, then you can't really plan for it, so you can just put that "American dream" to bed right now.

And thankfully I was answered by those in the workshop with better perspective than me. Once again proving, that not only am I usually not the smartest person in the room, I quite often end up being one of the dumbest. But the good news is that I always get to learn from those smarter than me. And here are the lessons they gave me, which I'll now share with you:

  • If you have kids or are working with them, providing as much opportunity for them to learn can prove incredibly meaningful as they develop. And if you are in the not-for-profit sector and have the opportunity to create opportunity for kids who don't have it because of their less lucky chance of birth, it will make a vital difference in their development.
  • Never discount experience when it comes to identifying people to work with - but don't overemphasize it, either. Once someone has 10,000 hours of practice, they can excel. And 20,000 hours of practice doesn't double ability - everyone over 10,000 has about an equal amount of expertise. So if a 26 year-old and a 46 year-old each have at least 10,000 hours of experience fitting your job description, don't assume the 46 year-old is necessarily the best choice because they have 30,000.
  • Never underestimate the importance of hierarchies of power and relationships to power due to cultural differences. If you are a leader in the sector, keep your ears open for what those less "powerful" than you are trying to say, but potentially too caught in a power-influence pattern to say it straight out. Even better - put your number 2 in the driver's seat so they have no choice but to say or do what they mean, and then you have the ability (and power position) to suggest, correct and/or teach.
  • People excel partially because of a confluence of factors beyond their control, which also means that people fail because of a confluence of factors beyond their control. Particularly in social services, consider how any client is not just a product of his or her actions, but also of circumstance. Any efforts to accommodate - and even better - correct those circumstances are invaluable for a "failing" individual's ability to change their life for the better.
  • And of course, if your kid is born in December, forget about them playing in the NHL.

If you have any additional nuggets of wisdom based on Gladwell's book, please share them with me here.

And, finally. A SHAMELESS PLUG. Feel free to stop reading if you don't want to hear it. If you want to teach people like me what to learn from interesting authors, attend a Books for Breakfast at Volunteer Vancouver. You don't have to read the book, just hear about its theories and discuss their application in the real world with a group of smart, engaged people. Next one is on Built to Change, September 17.


Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified) on
Great post! Thanks for sharing your experience and the ideas of the rest of the group.
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified) on
I, too, am a big fan of "The Tipping Point" and have contemplated buying this book for awhile. Thanks for sharing your nuggets of wisdom; I think I'll get the book and see what I can dig up myself! - Gilian http://blog.scss.ca


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