Why do some people succeed far more than others?

Our Take On Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

Why do some people succeed far more than others? What are successful people like?

After examining how social change happens through viral ideas in The Tipping Point and the implications of quick "gut" decisions in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell now looks at successful individuals in his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success (2008).

His outliers are super-achievers – stars – off-the-chart performers, whether in the arts, business, education or sports.

The individuals that Gladwell portrays for us have all been extremely successful. But he confronts our "Horatio Alger beliefs" that outstanding performers owe their success only to their own intelligence, skills and ambition.

Through compelling stories, Gladwell introduces us to elite Canadian hockey players, software billionaires like Bill Gates, international jet pilots, Asians who are very good at math, and disadvantaged Bronx students who attend an experimental public school – KIPP Academy. What made them successful?

While Gladwell respects that the hockey players are unquestionably good, he also points out that most of them were born in January, February or March. That isn't coincidence. The eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey (starting with five year-olds) in Canada is January 1st.

By the time these young boys are nine or ten, coaches start to select their players for all-star teams. Naturally, they usually choose the bigger and more coordinated kids. Those chosen receive better coaching, have more skilled teammates, and play two to three times more games each season than those left behind in regular leagues. Their advantages continue to grow over time.

It isn't just a Canadian phenomenon. In the United States, youth basketball and football don't "stream" so dramatically. But youth baseball does. The cutoff date for almost all non-school baseball leagues is July 31st. More Major League baseball players are born in August than any other month.

Picking the best young hockey players has often really just been picking the oldest. Making early hiring or promotion calls about employees is often really just favoring those who have participated in a unique event, been exposed to a specific mentor, or "lucked into" an experience or relationship.

Gladwell demonstrates that success almost always "has roots that extend wider and deeper than personal drive and skill" and that companies (as well as families, schools and societies) can – and must – evaluate honestly and create support and opportunities that will produce significantly more outliers.

We don't agree with all of Outliers' premises, and we think Gladwell minimizes the importance of an individual's drive to succeed.

At Sockwell Partners, we don't discount "Horatio Alger stories" and we have tried to find the "deep roots" that make a difference for more than 26 years.

But Gladwell's probing analysis compels us to ask new questions and challenge old assumptions. "How much raw talent remains uncultivated and ultimately lost because we cling to outmoded ideas of what success looks like and what is required to achieve it?" (Shaywitz: Wall Street Journal, 11/15/2008).

The fierce global competition for outliers obliges all of us to understand more about the invisible elements of success. How can we partner to identify more high-potential but overlooked performers? How will we track results? What payback can we expect?