Expertise, opportunity, and legacy are key to success (a review of “Outliers”)


I had been meaning to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Successever since it was first published just over a year ago. Since a lot of the discussion of the book focused on the “10,000 hour rule” for achieving expertise, or mastery, it seemed a perfect fit for my interests. I’m still surprised that it took this long for me to get to it, but I have to say I’m glad that I waited. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I think I appreciate its message better now than I would have if I had read it a year ago.

My first impression on reading the book was along the lines of, “Wait a minute. This book isn’t about mastery.” True, Gladwell talks about the hard work that goes into becoming an expert in a given trade or profession, and includes this expertise as a prerequisite for achieving success. What comes out, or at least what I got out of it is: mastery is required, but not sufficient, to achieve success. (For the purposes of this review, I’ll leave a discussion of what constitutes success to another day.) Mastery is just one part of success, according to Gladwell, the other two being opportunity – and taking advantage of it – and legacy (your cultural background).

Of course, both opportunity and legacy definitely have an impact on your ability and desire to achieve mastery in a given topic.  Gladwell goes through a wide variety of examples of real people, showing these principles in action, including:

  • Bill Gates had an early interest in computers, and because of his cultural environment had the opportunity to use a nearly unlimited amount of free computer access at a time when that access was prohibitively expensive for everyone, much less a teenager.
  • A study of Canadian junior hockey players showed that because of the of the structure of seasons and age cut off dates,  those born early in the year were more likely to have success. He applies this same process to Jewish lawyers in New York and other groups.
  • In a chapter titled “Rice paddies and math tests”, Gladwell explores how the differences in agriculture between Asia and the US have contributed to the differences in education systems and the conventional wisdom (you could say stereotype) that “Asian kids are good at math.”
  • And more…

I enjoyed this book. I’m not sure I learned anything new in terms of “facts”, but I did come away with an understanding of a different way of looking at the stories of the people around me, successful or not. After reading the epilogue, in which Gladwell tells his family story applying the concepts in Outliers, I can’t help but look at every situation now and wonder, “What’s the real story behind how that person got to where they are?”

It has also encouraged me to look at my own past, to better understand my legacy and the opportunities that I’ve had along the way. And my future, to wonder what unique opportunity that my generation has been given and what I will have made of it when the time comes to look back on my life.

FIRST and the sports model – is it getting out of hand?

Dean Kamen’s vision for FIRST is simple to state:

To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.

Simple to state, but not nearly so simple to achieve.

The FIRST organization have chosen to use the sports model as the basis of their programs, as shown in the image to the right. Of course, many of the most celebrated people today are athletes, and much of the K12 experience here in the US revolves around athletics.

If you heard his kickoff speech for this year’s game, though, you know that Dean is becoming frustrated with how this model is working out, with the focus for many individuals and teams becoming the winning, not the competition itself. Or, in the terminology of the folks at TrueCompetition.org, these teams have moved from competition into decompetition.

In some ways, this is an inevitable evolution, the nature of professional sports (which, in my mind, includes college sports) in which the intrinsic motivation of young athletes with a love of the game transforms into the extrinsic motivation of the rewards of victory.

What do you think? Is the sports model getting out of hand and need to be changed? Or does it just need to be “tweaked” a bit.

Do you have a coach for your team?

In a recent post I asked if you, as an individual, have a coach.  My question for today:  Do you, as a leader of an organization, have a coach for your team(s)?  If you don’t have a separate position for a coach, do you act as the coach for your team?  Or do you just not think your team needs a coach to help them carry out their jobs and missions?

Consider this from a Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell (about his new book Outliers: The Story of Success) on ESPN.com:

More importantly, what do you do with nature? You can’t change your genes. The only thing we can do something about is the nurture part, and that’s why we ought to spend so much more time talking about it. Right now, for instance, like everyone else, I’m fascinated by Mike Leach. He’s created a system so good that it seems like he can plug in virtually any reasonably talented quarterback and get spectacular results. Isn’t that extraordinary? Why don’t pro teams learn that lesson? Doesn’t that mean that a pro franchise ought to spend way more time selecting and developing its coaching talent than it does now?

I always find it incredible that an NFL team will draft a running back in the first round, give him a $10 million signing bonus, and get, maybe, four good years out of him. Suppose you spent $10 million finding and training the equivalent of Mike Leach — someone who could create a system so good that it could make even the most mediocre athletes play like stars. You could get 40 years out of him.

Just like the NFL, and other pro sports leagues, your ‘talent’ will come and go, especially in this age of the cloudworker.  To paraphrase Gladwell above, what if instead of hiring a star individual performer or two to be on your team you hired and trained a coach that could make the team you already have perform like stars?

Do you have a coach? Do you need a coach?

If you ask a competitive athlete if they have / need a coach the answers will likely range from “Yes” to “Of course” to “Are you kidding?”. If you ask a knowledge worker, or concept worker, the same question the answers will likely range from “No” to “Huh?” to “Are you kidding?” Obviously, the “Are you kidding” answer has very different meanings in the two different contexts.

I’ve often wondered why this is: why is it acceptable, expected even, that athletes have and need coaches but considered a luxury if someone has a work/life coach and actually a detriment – a sign of weakness – if someone wants or needs a work/life coach?

The discussion around a recent question on LinkedIn got me thinking about this again:

Q: If you can’t afford a coach, what are you doing to support your professional growth?
A: I love (?) the assumptive nature of this question: that everyone needs a coach;…  Do professionals need coaches? No, certainly not.

The answer I quote above is just part of one response, but nearly all of the answers (so far) seem to dismiss the idea that a professional coach is desirable or needed.  The alternatives range from talk with friends, study the success of others, and read and continue to develop your knowledge on the subject of your job.

Going back to the world of sports, such an approach would be a sure path to the loser’s circle (unless you are Roger Federer, of course).  What is it about our work as professionals in business that makes us different from the work of professionals in sports?