‘Outliers’… Hard Work or Lucky Break?

Outliers - The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell

The ‘best of the best’, crème de la crème, the ‘alpha dogs.’  I have always been fascinated by and drawn to individuals in any arena of life, be it sports, business or the arts that so thoroughly dominates in their chosen field, that there really isn’t even a distant second. How is it that one person, out of a sea of incredibly driven and talented individuals can rise so far above the rest of the pack? More importantly, what lessons are there to be learned by the rest of us hoping to achieve our own measure of success?

Throughout my adult life I’ve been a firm believer in the power of positive thinking and goal setting. I’ve studied carefully the art of visualization and modeling your behaviors and patterns after the successful who have come before and this practice has worked to varying degrees in my personal and professional life. I’ve been a believer that if you simply work hard enough, long enough and smart enough to maximize your innate abilities and talents that one day you would be rewarded.

Recently however, I stumbled upon a book that has turned my thinking on the achievement of “success” upside down and is making me second-guess my  belief in the myth of the “self-made person.” In his former #1 New York Times best-seller Outliers, author Malcom Gladwell lays out a compelling case that states that the dominate players in any field achieved their station in life, not necessarily solely through innate ability, determination and drive, but also through an intricate and fortuitous chain of events… Being in the “right place at the right time.” What’s this? Could it be that the naysayers and doubters in life were right all along?… Does success really come down to getting a “lucky break?”

Michael Jordan dunks
Putting in your 10,000 hours.

Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, The Beatles, Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs… All leaders and in some cases, visionaries in their chosen fields and without a doubt, prime examples of Outliers, but what exactly IS an Outlier? Gladwell defines it as “…Men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”

Make no mistake,according to Gladwell, there is no substitution for hard work and innate talent and he espouses throughout Outliers the 10,000 hour rule which states that it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice at one’s craft to master it. He goes on to cite as examples The Beatles time spent slogging away in the clubs of Hamburg Germany seven days a week, or a young Bill Gates logging in his 10,000 hours at a computer keyboard typing code. However, Outliers also goes on to make the case that upon further investigation, it becomes apparent that true high-achievers are more often than not the beneficiaries of the right upbringing, having access to the best schools, valuable contacts and golden opportunities that another equally gifted person who is just as driven to succeed may simply not be given and this can be the difference between being merely proficient and dominating the field.

So is success all just ‘luck of the draw’ or?…

I have to admit, after reading this interesting take on what factors determine success, I was both fascinated and a little bummed. Having not been blessed with a silver spoon upbringing or gained entrance to the best schools, was I doomed to ‘also-ran status’ in life when all along I thought one could scale any mountain through sheer will and determination? Ultimately, my take away is this; I think what Outliers is really saying is that although a bit of good fortune (luck) is needed in life to get ahead, one must be prepared through having put in their 10,000 hours of practice and work to be able to seize the opportunity when it is presented. Or, as Thomas Edison so succinctly put it, “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” What do you think? Is life just a crap shoot, or can we shape our own destinies?

Randy Sloan


  1. I loved that book. Very thought-provoking, as Gladwell usually is.

    I think is a combination of factors that makes someone stand out as an exemplar. Determination, talent, practice and yes, luck. Oprah didn’t go to the best schools, yet she had something that’s make her a mega success. It’s not always being liked, but you have to be liked well enough that others will buy into your ideas.

    Glad you wrote about the book. His others are good as well.

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