Top Five Books of the Year: Number Four…

I was looking for a photo of Malcolm Gladwell for my commentary on Outliers and laughed when the photo I wanted sent me to the Design Your Life blog; their book, is on my reading list for 2011. Like just about everyone else I know, they also read Outliers this year. I found the Eastons’ comments about Outliers spot on: “The book bills itself as a treatise on success; after all, it’s an airport book, and everyone in Terminal B is seeking to go up, up, and away”. Gladwell is a science writer, and his TED talk on spaghetti sauce is my all-time favorite. He’s an incredible storyteller who can connect the dots of modern science in a way that few can.

But Outliers is an airplane book, more so than his previous works like Tipping Point and considerably more so than Blink, both books that were less interesting in their story-telling narrative but possibly more applicable to day-to-day, life. Outliers is a popular book in the 70 hour-a-week world I operate in because the author enjoys a massive permission asset promising to reveal the real story of success. Outliers examines the optimal conditions for success, and that’s a message that the go-getters of the world must read, right? Almost (almost) everyone I know in the real estate world that wants to build their business is looking for an edge, a thing that will make them awash in dollars. So anyone in this business who reads, reads Outliers, with the hope that they too can become an Outlier. What do they find?

The book delivers… just not in the way I think the majority of the audience hoped it would. Outliers is a devastating tale of pre-destination. If you’re on that upward trajectory and want to make it to the top… guess what, it’s too late, baby.

You are a product of your environment. Your childhood and upbringing: it mattered. Past tense.

If you’re Bill Gates, your chance to get 10,000 hours of critical computer programming in before anyone else on the planet was doing it, gave you a talent and perspective that no other person on the planet enjoyed. If you’re a Beatle, playing live two to three times a night eight days a week in Hamburg were the seminal events of your later financial windfall. Correspondingly, the great humor I find in this book and in Gladwell himself: yep, the secret is here and he has both the science and the narrative to deliver that secret; problem is, 99 out of 100 who buy the book were hoping there was something they could do to cash in that secret. For 99 out of 100, it’s too late.

If you are a Columbian second officer on an airplane, your cultural inability to correct superiors about a flight’s fuel gauge is going to have devastating consequences.

If you are a 1950’s WASPY attorney in Manhattan, your days are numbered, and you have no clue that your about to be trumped by the sons of the Jewish tailoring industry.

If you are a self-employed entrepreneur looking to make more money or more anything in your presently chosen career path… find another career path. Find something that only your upbringing, your world view, your already 10,000 hours of intentional investment can produce a unique, un-scalable result.

As opposed to Tipping Point (Chaos Theory) and Blink (Thinking without Thinking) which give clues to the future, Outliers is really about one of two things: a historical examination of how environmental circumstances produce success; and the need to understand your story in the now. The irony of course is that 99 out of 100 copies are probably purchased by people trying to get ahead now, and the message ultimately is spend 10,000 hours of focused, intentional, cutting edge work on a format no one else on the planet is yet working on. The comments I’ve seen from colleagues, bloggers and on Facebook about the book are so often  “wow, I have to spend 10,000 hours on my blog/my SEO/my speaking presentations” and while it’s great that they want to sharpen the saw, they’re almost always consistently off the mark. The message is to be in the right place at the right time, then dedicate the hours to a pursuit that no one else is doing yet; or, be the by-product of a specific culture that encourages a certain result (Southeast Asian rice-farming leads to superior math results; American Independence leads to superior aircraft piloting).

Outliers is the historical re-telling of how spectacular success (and some spectacular failures) happened. Past tense. Those looking for silver bullets and short cuts to amplify their life, will find great story-telling and the tale of how massive talent under ideal circumstances created spectacular success. But this is not E-Myth. This is not building a better system. It’s instead the story of the petri dish.

I’m a husband. I’m a dad. I was a history major. My best teacher was Carol Neel. Carol didn’t give me A’s. Carol didn’t like my writing. Carol challenged me, and relished conceptual thinking supported by extensive critical documentation. One of here best statements was “there is the truth, and then, there is the meta-truth.” A great example of this is that Rome was sacked by the Vandals. Content-based education helps you remember the dates, which I don’t, but I have Wikipedia to figure that out. Concept-based education like the second floor of Palmer Hall at CC teaches, leads you to root origins that go all the way to 399 B.C. and Socrates’ suicidal execution to understand the telling and retelling of history. Socrates condemnation and Rome’s Failure have origins in mass hubris. That’s meta-truth. Gladwell’s book is an airplane read that deals in meta-truth. Not many meta-truth books sell millions of copies.

Kierkegaard said “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Having digested a substantial amount of science and putting together the patterns of how these are linked, Gladwell is to be commended. But it is as a story-teller where he should be praised. Unpacking the past of these spectacular successes is an amazing lesson in how to bring up children. Here are the visceral images of both the benefit and the cost of spectacular success. Like so much in life, it gets down to doing what others dare not do, and then doing a whole lot of that. With the exception of airline pilots, this whole “lot of what others dare not do”, has to do with hands-on, live-fire, real-world, getting dirt under the nails. The amazing pattern is that while dedication and hours matter, there is no linear pattern that is common in any of the tales. There is no objective system. There are causes and there are effects, but there is no way of predicting either.

It leads me to think, if I’m setting up my kids for a systematized education of test-taking, grade-based, button-pushing, I’m probably doing them a disservice. Number Three on this year’s list unpacked that idea… and then some.

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