What separates outstanding achievers from everybody else?

Dan Tipney, our Head of Evidence and Insights, reviews 'Outliers' by Malcolm Gladwell and gets to grips with what makes someone highly successful.

The author of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, has a diverse background both in terms of geographic location and experiences. He was born in England, grew up in Canada, and worked in the USA. He studied history followed by a career in journalism, initially covering business and science. Such an array of environments, locations and areas of expertise likely led him to a great variety of experiences, cultures and opportunities. His acute awareness of this and his subsequent success is what I believe led him to writing this book.

He brilliantly dispels the myth that highly successful people are simply born with huge talent and therefore achieve great things. Similarly, he goes against the grain of many popular ‘miracle’ books which suggest that anyone can achieve anything…as result of reading this book. To this end he comprehensively describes why simple hard work by itself is not enough.

Having read Outliers the message I have taken away is about what separates outstanding achievers from everybody else. It is not simply their huge talent, or willingness to work extremely hard, but opportunity. This is not to say that the likes of Bill Gates and The Beatles were lucky. Far from it; they really were talented and really did work hard. But arguably their biggest talent was not as a computer genius or as musicians but it was their awareness of opportunity and their ability and willingness to capitalise on it.

This aspect of Outliers I think is highly valuable to many of us as it gives a realistic and a balanced way of understanding how to maximise your chances of achievement. Rather than suggesting you should forget what you know, follow this recipe, expect success and inevitably end up disappointed the message here is far more helpful; Know your strengths, be prepared to work really hard and when you see an opportunity then make sure should grab it by the horns. With this approach there can always be a sense of optimism, as like in many of the examples in Outliers – what often seems like your biggest knock down can turn out to be your greatest chance.

The other aspect of Outliers that rings particularly true to me is about culture and the role that it plays in so many outcomes. Whether it is the heart health of an area such as Roseto, the safety record of an airline or the success of different nationalities at the Math Olympics, Gladwell describes the significant impact of culture and environment on our behaviour and the resulting consequences.

I think reading the book will help people become more aware of the culture which they are from and in which they now live or work. This helps with self awareness and awareness of others with the resulting possibility that you can better cooperate, empathise, influence and make change. Korean Airlines is a great example because without this awareness, trying to make changes would have only caused conflict, increased stress and decreased performance – whereas the actual result was quite remarkable and well worth reading about.

Outliers expanded my thinking in terms of our environment and its implications in terms of what we hope to achieve. Culture could refer to the country or town you grow up in but it could also be on a smaller scale such as ‘way things are done’ in your house or place of work and this could have huge implications on behaviour and the resulting outcomes.

Ultimately Outliers tells you all about just that – people who lie out with the ordinary, as a result of great success. By understanding the truth behind their success and the bigger picture in terms of what contributed to their behaviour that made them so successful, I believe we all have the opportunity to make the most of our talent and our potential.