What Does It Take To Be Great?

Malcolm Gladwell looks like somebody wearing a big funny wig, with hair that shoots up all around and the serious demeanor of a scholar. The New Yorker writer is out with a new book that if anything like the first two, (The Tipping Point and Blink) should sell well and generate lots of talk. This time the book is called Outliers.

The new book follows his pattern of discerning factors that shape how people and trends develop in our society. This time it’s about the serendipity that leads some people to greatness. He doesn’t take away from them, but illuminates some of the causes besides innate genius that make people super successful.

Take the Beatles. The iconic band is a great example of one of Gladwell’s maxims: The difference between a professional and a talented amateur is 10,000 hours of practice. The Beatles had already performed more than 1200 live shows by the time they made it big in 1964. That’s more performances than many bands play in a career!

Bill Gates, another oft-cited genius, had this going for him: His Seattle area private school had a rummage sale and installed a computer terminal hooked up to a mainframe in downtown Seattle in 1968. Gates and his pals were drawn to this magic machine and developed a knowledge and love for it at a very early age. I remember in my private school in Princeton, we too had computers back in the early ’70s. They were made by Digital and only the truly nerdy kids hung out in that room.

Then Gladwell cites another fascinating example: The birthdates of young hockey players. Since youth hockey leagues in Canada form teams based on age, they group kids born in January with kids born in December of the same year. So the kids with the age advantage are a little bigger and more advanced. This encourages more coaching, and more chances to be picked for elite leagues.

A final example is between two scientists, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, and the equally brilliant Christopher Langan. But the former grew up in a wealthy NY neighborhood, instead of rural Montana. His early-age learning and ‘practical intelligence’ gave him the ability to talk his way into a job at the Manhattan project pushed him far in life, while Langan never got as far.