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2 Surprising Reasons Why Talent Isn’t That Important

Malcolm Gladwell on the secret stories of success


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Alexander Boswell

4 months ago | 6 min read
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Malcolm Gladwell on the secret stories of success

Have you ever wondered why some people are more successful than others? How the likes of Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller became so much more successful in their fields than people who were just as good as them?

Did you put it down to natural talent? It turns out, while talent does have a degree of contribution to success — on its own, it’s not that important. But we already sort of know that deep down, right? But why?

Recently I finished reading a book called ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell, who helps us navigate the roadmap of the successful ‘Outliers’.

In the short, but incredibly engaging read, Gladwell takes you on a journey looking at the patterns that emerge from people in all different kinds of industries: from scientists to computer programmers like Bill Gates to rock stars like The Beatles.

In his writing, he shows us there are two main reasons why these wildly successful people earned their fortunes: Opportunity, and legacy.

The Opportunity Factor

Now, you might read this and think, “Aha! I knew it was all down to luck, just gotta catch a break!” But there’s even more to it than that; luck very rarely has no cause.

To give an example, Gladwell opens up this section of chapters with a narrative describing the Canadian Hockey League, a pretty important pastime in Canada.

This narrative leads us to how the psychologist Roger Barnsley realized the best teams comprise of players born in the first three months of the year. Gladwell notes:

“It has nothing to do with Astrology, nor is there anything magical about the first three months of the year. It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1.”

Gladwell proceeds this the explanation that kids born on January 2 are then playing alongside other kids born way later in the year — and in that time of our lives, a 10–12-month gap represents a massive amount of physical maturity.

And so, naturally, the bigger, older kids are the ones often picked for the advanced teams — which gives them more opportunities to train, which helps them get better, and so on. And this system of picking players isn’t just in hockey, it’s in every sport reliant on cutoff dates for signing up.

So in sport, a significant portion of your success is attributed to the time of year you were born — not just talent at the game. That’s the opportunity factor.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

If you’ve read many self-improvement books or articles, chances are you might have already come across the concept of the 10,000-Hour Rule.

The basic breakdown of the rule is this: if you want to be really good at something, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice. That’s something we all know inside; it takes work to be great.

What’s more surprising is the importance of the opportunity to practice for that amount of time. In Outliers, Gladwell brings up the stories of both Bill Joy and Bill Gates, since they have pretty similar parallels.

If you don’t know who Bill Joy is, he’s the guy that rewrote UNIX and a lot of the software we use to access the internet. He’s a big deal.

Crucially, both of these pillars of computer science came to their successes through a series of opportunities they saw and subsequently seized, as well as (as it happens) the years they were born.

In both cases, they had incredible opportunities to access the early computer programming mainframes available to very few at the time. In Bill Gates’ case, his mother’s school-parent club bought a computer terminal for their kids to use in 1968. That’s before even most US colleges had them.

Similarly, in Bill Joy’s case, Joy went to Michigan University because he was interested in math and engineering. It just so happens that when he discovered programming, he was in one of the only campuses in the country with the technology to practice it.

Since both Gates and Joy got in early, by the time the computer revolution was happening in mid-1970’s Silicon Valley, they’d already racked up their 10,000 hours of practice. If either had been born a few years earlier or later, the opportunities they had wouldn’t have existed to get those hours in.

The Legacy Factor

The legacy factor, in Gladwell’s book, refers to the culture and heritage from which you originate. You might not put that much stock in those two having any significant impact on your behavior or ability to succeed at something. If you thought that, you’re mistaken.

Where you’re from influences the way you behave.

To illustrate his point, Malcolm first takes us on a journey through to the 19th century Appalachians where he finds a slew of waring family feuds. An extraordinary amount of people were murdered, considering the population size of the area. But why?

Instead of thinking about how perhaps the land was harsh and the people had to be tough to survive on it, he turned our attention to their origins. 

The people of Appalachia had originally emigrated mostly from the British Isles, in particular from high “Culture of Honor” areas — the Scottish lowlands, northern parts of England and Ireland.

This term “Culture of Honor”, explained in-depth in the book, but by definition is:

“Honor is self-worth based on an individual’s (usually a man’s) reputation and also his own assessment of what others think. Cultures of honor are those placing a high emphasis on the importance of a man as willing and able to violently, and sometimes lethally, retaliate against anyone who insults his honor, family, or values.”

In an experiment that showed the difference in the attitude of Southerners vs Northerners towards being insulted, Gladwell explains “Culture of Honor” still lives in the behavior and psyche of US Southerners to this day thanks to this legacy.

Your Culture and Heritage Help Determine Your Work Ethic

For this point, Gladwell turns our attention to an often referred to stereotype: “Why are Asians so good at math?” To clarify, we’re talking specifically about Southern Chinese people here.

While not every Southern Chinese person is a math whiz, they do have a cultural and language advantage towards being better at math than English speakers. Gladwell gives us a simple explanation: in the Mandarin and Cantonese languages, numbers are shorter.

This, he tells us, leads to a better chance of remembering a higher amount of numbers, and learning them quicker, than English speaking counterparts. But that’s not all; otherwise, this part would be up in the ‘opportunities’ section.

In China, there is a phrase:

“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”

Before the Chinese industrial revolution, and still today in more rural parts of China, rice paddy fields dominated the landscape. Before I read ‘Outliers’ I had no idea how much work went into harvesting rice. Now it makes sense why Chinese people tend to have an extremely strong work ethic.

Gladwell goes on to describe the nature of the work and how it’s an extraordinary entrepreneurial venture. The rice paddy farmers need to be highly skilled in several areas like math and engineering as well as business.

It’s also very different from the agricultural style of the West, since rice paddies are built, not grown from the ground.

This means crucially, the working life of a rice farmer is year-round. This, in turn, leaves a cultural imprint as we saw with the US Southerners. Except for this time, we see people who work more than anyone else on average in the world.

We then loop back to the 10,000-Hour Rule of practice and why those from the Southern Chinese culture has a natural advantage in this.

What Can We Learn From This?

In the West, we love a good ‘rising from nothing’ story of entrepreneurs and industry leaders. Time and time again, we see the stories of success where the person has faced adversity and even victimhood to get to where they are today.

But as we’ve learned, very rarely is this version of the story an absolute truth. There are many facets of cause and effect which propel our heroes into the stratosphere. If you ask any entrepreneur, chances are their success came when they saw an opportunity, and they were equipped to take it.

If you ask a highly sought athlete, musician, writer, architect, artist — they will have had the opportunity to practice an enormous amount of hours to get ahead of the rest in their fields.

Finally, the ones who reach the heights of success will have been those who recognise their cultural legacies and either overcome them (if they were unsuitable for the field of work) or took advantage of them.

In ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell has produced a thought-provoking series of inter-connected ideas that culminate into a fascinating take on the story of success.

However, I didn’t touch on every story and point he brought up in the book to support his narrative. As well as this, I wouldn’t pretend to have the same writing gravitas as Malcolm Gladwell (at least not yet), thus I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ for yourself.

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Alexander Boswell

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Alexander Boswell is a Business Ph.D candidate specialising in Consumer Behaviour and uses this knowledge as a freelance writer in the Content Marketing and B2B SaaS space. Find him on Twitter @alexbboswell or his website alexanderbboswell.com


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