Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Lucky bleeders?

There are probably more books on how to be successful than there are successful people, depending on how you measure success, of course. Then, there are age-old adages to spur us on, like Edison's 'genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration', and yet I've never seen a sweaty, stinky genius. Or, there is the brilliantly inane 'you make your own luck' statement, usually trotted out by someone who has won something through sheer chance.

However, in any walk of life, there are those that seem to defy all logic by being thick, lazy and successful. But is that perception from the envious (a.k.a. me) strictly true? Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers attempts to dig deeper into how the extraordinarily successful reach the pinnacle of their realm. Using a mixture of anecdotes and psychological research, he investigates the impact that opportunity and legacy have, enabling certain individuals to rise, helium-filled, out of site of the rest of us.

Check out those pits. It's like Death Valley in there. (d6.allthingsd.com)

By opportunity, Gladwell means factors such as age-grouping, where, in sports, older children within the group have a huge physical and experiential advantage, giving them more chance of being picked and trained to the next level. Opportunity also means practice. There is a ridiculous phrase, 'naturally gifted', where the words 'naturally' and 'gifted' are euphemisms used by the lazy that actually mean 'obsessed' and 'doing something about it' respectively. Gladwell calls this the 10,000-hour rule. In other words, while most people are losing brain cells watching TV soaps, or strangling their liver at the pub, the 'naturally gifted' are, hour after hour, physically and mentally honing their skills until they achieve their goal, and not giving up at the first hurdle because 'it's hard'.

Gladwell's chapters on legacy talks about the cultural factors – memes - whereby some people grow up in a strong work ethic environment, or where each generation is determined that the next will have better opportunities. Gladwell also shows that in some cases, the rigid, deferential structure of some cultures, has the opposite effect, such as in the 'ethnicity of plane crashes'. Even if this book doesn't increase your success quotient, it will save your life.

"Who is the Master now old man? It's still you, isn't it?" (ffbsccn.wordpress.com/20thC Fox)

Gladwell writes in an easy-to-read style, using layman's terms, and his anecdotes are interesting in their own right – real watercooler jobs. This isn't a scientific paper, and some of Gladwell's conclusions are slightly stretched, but he gives the reader something to think about while demystifying some of the processes, which, when understood, could improve the reader's lot. But he cannot advise on what is perhaps the biggest influence: being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

This is something about which Obi-wan Kenobi speaks (in the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster) when Luke learns how to use the Force to deflect laser beams while blindfolded, and Han Solo attributes Luke's success to luck. The Jedi Master responds, 'In my experience, there's no such thing as luck, only highly favourable adjustments of multiple factors to incline events in one's favour.' Gladwell could do worse than stand on the shoulders of the wisest man in the Universe.

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