"Real life is seldom as neat as it appears in a Malcolm Gladwell book," recently wrote Publishers Weekly in its review of the New Yorker scribe's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, which hits bookshelves today. Of course Gladwell groupies know, as the writer told me back in 2006 while writing a profile on him as the emerging business prophet ("The Accidental Guru"): "I'm just trying to get people to start a conversation, even if the conversation is, 'Well, that's interesting, and that's not, and that's sort of bulls — t' . . . I'm much happier getting criticized for overreaching than I would for being too timid."
In Outliers, the area that inevitably some will argue he overreaches: success. In typical Gladwellian form, he weaves together studies, historical and sociological data, quirky factoids, and human profiles to alter how we think about why the few uber-successful have achieved their meteoric status, while even those with the highest IQ will never.
With Gladwell's hourly speaking fee up to some $80,000 (it was $40,000 when we profiled him), the business community will predictably be searching for that neat Tipping Point-esque takeaway from Gladwell's third soon-to-be bestseller. Most likely the bit aspiring corporate savants will latch on to will be the "10,000" theory. According to neurologist Daniel Levitin, it turns out the one common thread among the most successful moguls, athletes, scientists, and artists (even criminals) is that they've spent at least 10,000 hours practicing their craft. Algorithmic translation: some three hours a day for an entire decade. I can already imagine the reductionist version of this playing out now (which isn't necessarily a terrible thing).
Those of us in the business world will probably most enjoy Gladwell's spin on Bill Gates's success, which illustrates this point exactly. It wasn't just Gates's internal wiring that turned him into the billionaire tech czar; ever since he was a kid, the dude practiced for thousands of hours at his school computer club and down the road at the University of Washington where he had access to the newest computers. Then there was the timing factor. Gates, along with his nemesis Steve Jobs, were both born in 1955, smack in between the IBM-lifer generation and the 70's PC revolution, putting them in the unique positon to innovate.
"We've been far too focused on the individual—on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world. And that's the problem," says Gladwell. "Because in order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them—at their culture and community and family and generation. We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looked at the forest." I guess there's still hope for the rest of us.