An Analysis of Exceptional Success

Gift #6

I love it those times when something you would really like, whether you know it or not, just arrives without you doing anything to get or deserve it. You have to be there, at the right time and the right place. And you have to be receptive to it - happy to receive what is being given to you rather than turning it away. But aside from that, this ‘thing’ just arrives. Some may say through fate, others as a result of karma, some by odds and chance, and others - like me - say it is all determined by God. I suppose, for the purpose of this blog and post, that is by the by.

‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell, is an example of this in two ways. Firstly, my father finished with this book and handed it to me. “I don’t need this anymore, would you like it?”I wholly recommend receiving things - in a grateful way, of course - to everyone! Secondly, because this is - to a large degree - what this book is about. Exceptional success does not come to people who are born brilliant, it comes to those who are born at a given time and place and with a certain level of ability, and are then conditioned by a certain set of circumstances (both good and bad) in order to be ready to make a particularly successful use of what opportunities are handed to them.

‘Outliers’ gives a chapter by chapter analysis of many of these different factors that Gladwell believes are a key contributor to exceptionally successful people. He has broken these down into opportunities and legacies (which possibly also could be viewed as conditioning), and included factors such as date and location of birth, family circumstances, unique opportunities and cultural norms around work ethic and one’s relationship with authority. Some of these factors are much more significant than you would expect and certainly have long-lasting impacts.

Overall I found Gladwell’s concept and overall writing style very ‘moreish’ and I found it difficult to put down. Now - a couple of months after reading it - I am still mulling over its application to different parts of life and what other factors one might include in the list. I do recommend it for an interesting read. To a certain extent it is theory, but it does make you draw back and take a broader perspective about what has made you and the people around you the way you are today.

I also think it provides insights that apply to, not just people, but also the social structures and the organisations that make up the world around us. To me, it highlights the importance of thoughtful analysis and not just acceptance of the way things prima facie appear or are conveyed. (I guess this is generally an argument against making quick judgements.) This book was trying to reject the idea that is found in our dreams and perpetuated by the media that people can by their own talent, perseverance and innate brilliance have outstanding success all by themselves.

Many of us dream about it, don’t we, saving the world or writing a bestseller or setting up a business or family, all by ourselves, and which is the envy of all our friends? But not only does this put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed, it also forgets the very obvious point that the very essence of us, to the point of how much we are able or willing to apply ourselves, is all given to us by our circumstances. If we looked a bit deeper below the surface and tried to remove some of our inbuilt bias, we would see that things are not necessarily what we originally thought or wanted to think… and of course, this is core to understanding any organisation too. What you first think about how an organisation operates is not always the reality.

This book also provides a real-world example of the importance of systems thinking in understanding how things operate and how they can be improved. Systems thinking, sometimes known as resilience or networking thinking, is all about recognising that we all operate within a bigger system and that any activity can have a large number of inputs from other activities, and outputs that affect other activities. As Peter Scholtes puts it “systems thinking refers to the general reflex or habit of conceiving of reality in terms of interdependencies, interactions and sequences” (The Leader's Handbook. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998, page 58). Systems thinking - as in taking the time to identify, analyse, map out and understand the impacts that certain conditions have on an outcome - provides a very useful mindset for getting to the truth of any matter. If you're interested in learning more about systems thinking, this article by Daniel Kim at thesystemsthinker.com is a great place to start.

While Gladwell explores the impact of certain conditions on possibly the most complex of all systems - a single person - to me this also suggests the importance and benefit of analysing and understanding the interactions and impacts of conditions and activities within bigger systems, such a s businesses and other organisations. After all, an enterprise is not going to be wildly and sustainably successful just due to a jewel of an idea, product, service or CEO. There is the bigger picture that needs to be addressed - of operations / service provision (to actually produce or provide something to customers), marketing (to get the word out), and the context of the customers themselves.

So, the bad news is that exceptional success may not just be down to you - there is a whole history behind you and the way that you do things that may or may not have set you up for it. But that’s a good thing too - the pressure is off! However, being able to think through things is a wonderful ability that can help you in your efforts - the ability to thoughtfully analyse an idea or an approach, and in the context of the broader setting which it must function within.

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What do you think?