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Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

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Ever wondered what makes successful people successful?

If you think it’s down to the Bill Gates’ of this world having some kind of special gift, or that they have a particularly driven personality to help them to make billions, think again.

As Gladwell points out, “the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work”.

According to the book, we need to stop focussing on the character traits of individuals, and instead look at their background, the opportunities they’ve been given and the way they have responded to them.

The first thing this book taught me is that not all patterns are obvious.

As a digital product manager, my job involves insight – I have to look for patterns and opportunities in data, every day. The way that Malcolm Gladwell explores how success comes about has completely reverse-engineered that for me. The book made me realise how agile your thinking has to be, in order to spot opportunities.

It also made me think about things from a leadership perspective. There are a lot of people with capability who never get to realise their potential. Why is that? How can we change the way we do things to get the best out of everyone?

You might have an amazingly creative person in your team, but you never get to hear their ideas because they’re more introverted. How do you start to weave in opportunities to encourage them to speak up naturally, rather than forcing them and making them feel uncomfortable?

I play a lot of team sports, so I started thinking about how this applies outside of work, too – how do I make sure everyone gets a fair crack at things?

Success isn’t simply a case of working hard to achieve your dreams. Sometimes there are circumstances outside of your control

In his book, Gladwell discusses how the Canadian ice hockey team was losing potential talent because of the way it was set up. The academy selection process meant that only those born in the first quarter of the year had any real chance of success. So no matter how hard they worked, some kids would never make the grade in time to play professionally, simply because they were born too late in the year.

I can relate to that, having played rugby for most of my life. When I reached the stage where I might get selected to train professionally, I realised that as a sport dominated by private schools, a lot of the selection process is based on where you come from, so I eventually came to the end of the road.

But it’s not all bad…

Circumstances can also work in your favour. Bill Gates’ parents were successful, so could afford to send him to a good school. And luckily for him, he went to Lakeside – Seattle’s most elite private school.

Self-programming was new at the time, and Gates had unparalleled access to computers – the chance to explore the technical world and build systems. This gave him a huge advantage over those who perhaps had the same capabilities, but didn’t have the opportunity.

 Talent alone won’t get you where you need to go – you need purposeful practice to really excel

In addition to his engaging story telling and real-life examples, what really resonated for me is the idea that talent alone won’t get you where you need to go – you need purposeful practice to really excel.

The idea that you can achieve success if you put enough practice in – ten thousand hours to be precise – is attributed to Gladwell. So even if you started young or got a lucky foot in the door, you still have to put in the hours to achieve success.

Tiger Woods deliberately practiced the more difficult shots. He kept pushing himself to make sure he left nothing to chance. Because as they say in sport – hard work only beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

You also need to be prepared to take advantage of the unplanned opportunities that come your way. The difference between normality and greatness could be a sequence of events that you have little to no control over.

Changing my working environment

My personal takeaway was to consider what type of leader I want to be and the culture I’d like to create.

I reflected on my own experiences: The nature of my environment at school was to speak your mind, pitch up. Nobody was going to encourage you or listen, so you had to look after yourself or miss out. As a result, I’m more than happy to pitch in with an opinion, get involved, or put my hand up.

Through working in different departments and playing sports with various teams, I’ve met a lot of people who were maybe a bit quieter, but when they did speak, I realised that they spoke with authority and people would stop and listen.

Shiny happy people

So I’ve been thinking about how can I give space to other people, encourage them to put themselves forward and take advantage of opportunities.

It’s easy to just focus on what you need to do, to concentrate on making sure your own input is really good. But it’s important that everybody has an equal opportunity to shine.

Moving into looking after the team, albeit temporarily, I plan to do what I can to make sure that everybody can say “I’ve got no barriers, I’ve got access to opportunity, I can just get on with being brilliant.” Then I can focus on things that they need help with, rather than things that are outside of their control.

Even on a small level, if I can have a positive impact on people in my immediate working environment, then we’re all one step closer to being more successful.