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No one starts with nothing. Rags-to-riches stories fool us because although they may be factually true—you may start your life poor and finish it rich—they leave out all the advantages of circumstances that contribute to success. Further, they make us believe that success is an individual achievement. But no one succeeds alone. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows us that where you’re from and the opportunities you’re given matter as much as personal advantages such as talent and intelligence.
They had their suit jackets off, and at this hour of morning—9:20 a.m.—they were leaning back in their seats, reading their Wall Street Journal s, and congratulating themselves on being young Masters of the Universe.Being a Master of the Universe; it seemed like a noble pursuit, and as I walked past the Masters, in my cheap blue suit and clodhopper shoes, I found myself wishing I were one of them. Watch free online wolf of wall street. The boardroom was a vast space, perhaps fifty by seventy feet. But my new boss was quick to remind me that I wasn’t. It was an oppressive space, loaded with desks, telephones, computer monitors, and some very obnoxious yuppies, seventy of them in all.
- For example, kids from middle-class and wealthy families tend to self-advocate more in school than kids from poorer families. Because they’re practiced in conversing with adults, they know how to communicate in a way that gets them what they want.
Wealthy parents can afford the time and money necessary to enroll their children in special programs, like violin lessons or after-school sports. These programs provide guidance and structure, which are useful (particularly for children) if they are to develop true mastery of a skill. Poorer families often aren’t able to provide the structure and guidance that comes with hiring a private tutor or music instructor.
External Factor #3: Cultural Legacy
We inherit cultural traits that influence our success or failure. Acknowledging the weaknesses of our cultural legacy enables us to make positive changes that increase our chances at success.
For example, the safest airlines are often those from countries whose cultures do not value strict societal hierarchies.
- Plane crashes are more common in airlines from countries that value strict hierarchies. This cultural norm creates communication barriers, which prevent co-pilots from speaking up and challenging the authority of the pilot. This is a problem if the co-pilot notices that something is wrong, but can’t communicate this effectively to the pilot.
- Korean Air addressed a pattern of plane crashes resulting from culturally-driven communication difficulties by changing their language of communication and training subordinates to take a more active and assertive role in their position.
External Factor #4: Hidden Opportunities
Sometimes, what appear to be disadvantages are actually opportunities.
For example, discrimination forced Jewish lawyers to develop a unique skill set. They became experts in the type of law that the elite firms wouldn’t touch: litigation. When litigation became a more acceptable practice in the 1970’s, these lawyers were already well-seasoned in their craft.
Nature vs Nurture
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These external factors can dramatically impact your opportunities for success. Talent and other innate qualities contribute to success, but only up to a point. This is known as the threshold effect.
For example, IQ is a useful metric for predicting success up until an IQ of about 120. After the threshold of 130, other factors become more significant, such as divergent thinking, the ability to think of multiple options and scenarios.
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Talent is important, but talent alone can only take you so far. We need to be able to develop our talent, and while our work ethic may be part of our personalities, it is also influenced by our cultural legacy.
Additionally, the time to achieve true mastery of a skill (Gladwell popularized the now-ubiquitous 10,000-hour practice benchmark) is only available to you if you come from a family and community that give you this opportunity.
What to Do with All This?
By understanding that external factors greatly influence success, we can intentionally create a world where more people are given opportunities to use and develop their gifts. For example, we might:
- Keep children out of gifted programs before age ten, when the advantage of having a birthday near the beginning of the academic year starts to weaken. This gives the younger kids in each grade a chance to “catch up” in maturity with their older classmates.
- Extend the length of the school day and school year, letting children from disadvantaged communities keep up with their more privileged peers.
- Set up a lottery admissions system for elite colleges and universities that gives any student with “good enough” grades and test scores a chance at admission.
- Acknowledge and address the weaknesses of our cultural traditions, as did Korean Air when it trained its copilots to be assertive rather than deferential when pointing out a problem, even though deference to authority is a significant part of Korean culture.
Such changes could create a world where outliers—the extraordinarily successful—cease to be outliers at all. Everyone could be more successful in a world in which we acknowledge that successes aren’t self-made and that our environments influence what we’re able to achieve.
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