Outliers, success and chance

Summer seems to be for reading and I just finished Gladwell’s Outliers: the story of success, in two days. Like his other books, it’s an easy read with lots of anecdotes. At the end, I thought to myself, what I can take away from this, other than some interesting stories?

The culture of our community strongly influences our health. This culture is more than what we see and can be affected by norms that are hundreds of years old and no longer visible.

When and where we were born have a significant impact on our chances for success. Just being intelligent or creative is not enough. We need chance to favour us; such as reducing competition during periods of low birth rates, or to be born early in the year so that we physically develop ahead of our peers and are perceived as “better”.

It takes a long time to develop deep skill in an area, about 10,000 hours, says Gladwell. The advantage is to those who develop these skills just before they come into great demand, like computer programming before the 1980’s or tailoring prior to an explosion of the garment industry. Like being born at the right moment, timing is everything.

Culture can also help or hinder a society as it changes. For example, Korean culture initially hindered effective communications in airplane cockpits but its culture and language have positioned it well in mathematics, science and education in general.

Echoing Dan Pink’s Drive (Autonomy, Mastery, Sense of Purpose), Gladwell concludes that meaningful work has three defining attributes:

Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five.

I was born in a year with heavy competition, 1959, the bulge of the baby boom. I have had lots of peer competition. Luckily, I got on the Web early, part of my second career, because my first career was good, but not a huge success (I was not on a promotion track when I left the military). I’ve developed skill with social media, especially blogging, amounting to close to 10,000 hours by now. There are about ~2,000 posts on this blog, I’ve made +17,000 Tweets and I’ve spent a lot of time in countless social network systems.

I got a head start because I saw the potential of the Web before my peers did. This was based on a series of serendipitous chances like transferring to the military Training branch and then getting posted to a project that required knowledge about flight simulation and computer based training, which few of us had, so I had to learn as I went along. This pushed me to go back to school and get a Master’s degree which then helped me get a job at a university where I got deeper into learning technologies.

My Canadian culture seems to make me less entrepreneurial than my American counterparts but I think I’m better at understanding other cultures. Good for supporting a business, but probably not leading one. Consulting seems to be a good fit, but I may not have gone into freelancing had I not been laid-off (twice in two years).

For someone 20 years younger than me, I think Outliers would be a good read and might help make some of life’s decisions a bit easier.

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