Friday, September 18, 2009

"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

It's elusive, sought after, envied, studied, emulated. But where does it come from? Is it a freak of nature? A coincidence? Did the fairies from Sleeping Beauty cast a spell over Bill Gates at birth?
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, examines the story of success in his third book, Outliers. I devoured this book. It feeds that part of you that says, "It can happen for me, I know it can! That thing I've dreamed of, it's possible!"
Success, Gladwell explains, has less to do with intelligence and ambition than we assume, and more to do with opportunity and legacy. Using statistical examples about everything from preadolescent hockey players in Canada to the generational family feuds in western Kentucky, Gladwell offers proof that the factors that determine our success -- whether we become an outlier or not -- are not merely subject to the whims of a fanciful God, bestowing random blessings as He sees fit.

An outlier is defined as "something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body, a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample."
The example Gladwell uses that stands out in my mind is about math. I hate math. I hate numbers. I despise formulas. From the fourth grade lesson on fractions that I failed (my first "F"), through the required college algebra course, I convinced myself I just wasn't good at math.
But Berkeley math professor Alan Schoenfeld would disagree. According to Schoenfeld, being good at math has more to do with attitude than ability. "You master mathematics if you are willing to try."

"Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds."

Part of success is based on natural circumstances. But another part of it is based on hard work and the willingness to do whatever is necessary to achieve the desired goal.

I don't really like that. That means that instead of being some elusive, intangible thing, success is within my grasp, if I'm willing to do what it takes to obtain it.

As a writer, what does that mean to me? It means that in order to be a success as a writer I'm first going to have to write. A lot. I'm going to have to submit my work and deal with rejection. A lot. And I'm going to have to keep writing when I don't feel "the muse" and when I'd rather be doing something else. Something easier. Something with tangible, built-in rewards.

Gladwell outlines the "10,000 hour rule" in chapter two, which downplays the importance of innate talent and magnifies the importance of preparation. Achievement, he says, is talent plus preparation. Gladwell cites a study done at Berlin's Academy of Music in the early 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson "couldn't find any 'naturals,' musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did."

The resulting research suggests the thing which distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he works, and the top performers don't just work a little bit harder than the rest, they work much, much harder. Scientific research has even quantified a number... 10,000 hours for true expertise in anything, whether it's music, chess, basketball, sewing, or writing.

What does 10,000 hours break down to? Eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for 4.8076923 years. Writes neurologist Daniel Levitin, "... no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

Now, that might seem discouraging to you. Five years, minimum, to achieve mastery in your chosen field or profession or hobby? Don't be discouraged, be encouraged! You can succeed--be an expert even--after just five years of effort! It's not magic, and it's not lottery luck, it's simple science!

Combine that with something Gladwell doesn't mention: having faith in God. Based on the definition of an outlier, all our Bible hall-of-famers were outliers. Think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Definite outliers. How about Gideon? He didn't start out as an outlier. He started out as a big chicken with a self-esteem complex. Or David, the original red-headed stepchild. Well, youngest child, as the story goes.

How long did David target-practice with that sling before he shucked off Saul's fancy armor and went out to meet the giant? What about Daniel's perseverance in prayer? Not only did it provide him with tremendous vision and revelation, it was probably that persistence that made the difference between him and all the rest when it came to interpreting Nebuchadnezzer's dreams. Their natural effort, combined with their faith in God's promises, gave these unlikely candidates success within and beyond the natural realm.

All that said, it would be good to recall the most important kind of success available to all of us: to stand before the Lord and hear Him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You've finished your race." If we'll keep that in mind as our ultimate goal, God will give us the opportunities we need, just as He did for those Bible heroes of old!
Question(s) of the day: How would Jesus define success compared to the world's version of success? Given your particular field, describe what an "outlier" would look like.
Start your journey toward becoming an outlier! Leave a comment below, include your name and e-mail address (be sure and leave spaces around the @ sign), and you'll be eligible to win a free 2010 "Believe and Succeed" pocket calendar to begin planning your way to success!

Click here to buy "The Outliers" at

Fiction: 2nd place in RWA's Touched By Love Contest, Short Contemporary
Non-fiction: Here Comes the Bride and The Judas Trap, available at
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  1. I posted a nice big long comment that promised to make you laugh and cry and then, because I am on Connie's computer, I logged out of her ID and lost the comment.

    anyway! alas, the gems of wisdom . . .

    Niki, I've heard you and Gina talk about this book before and I can see why.

    The conference is wonderful! I have yet to meet D'Ann and Wenda. But I promise to take lots of candid shots of Inkies and our online friends. (Connie and I are enjoying the Seekerville Treasure Hunt)

    Thanks to all those who comment. We are so blessed to see you come back. Have a wonderful weekend, everyone

    PS How can I be WAY OUT HERE in the west and still be one of the first if not the first commenter? hmmmmm.

  2. I read Blink and enjoyed it, but passed on this one after reading reviews in places like Publishers Weekly, basically stating that some of his conclusions from studies are questionable; however, I'll have to give it a second look. I think we can glean wisdom from most books, even ones with which we disagree.

    On one thing I wholeheartedly agree--hard work and writing even when the muse doesn't strike. Jesus, I believe would approve of this attitude. There are days when we do not feel like living a Christlike life. We want to yell at the neighbors, who park over our driveway just that itsy bit; we want to read a novel instead of our Bible. And we need to not feel like following Christ to know it is what we are called to do.

    PS: I'd say it took me that 4.? years of writing full-time to get the success the Lord has bestowed on me this year.

    Lauriealice.eakes [@] gmail [.] com

  3. Deb can be WAY OUT HERE and be the first because she's still operating on east coast time! :-)
    Just kidding.

    Niki, now here's yet another book to add to my reading list. What a beautiful post.

    We'll get pics at our get-together tonight. All has been amazing. I'm looking forward to sleep sometime soon!

  4. I think Jesus would say success is knowing God, hearing His voice, and following His will for your life day by day.

    I definitely need to pass some of these gems of wisdom on to my teensagers.

    For me, I know it was so freeing when I discovered that it usually takes 5-10 years for a committed writer to get published. I'm only 3 1/2 years in, so I figure I'm working at a pretty good pace.

    I think it's also important for all of us up and coming writers to remember that getting published won't make us any more successful in God's eyes than we are right now as we walk in His will.


  5. Good morning Niki.

    I'm still trying to figure out what kind of cute little white dog you're holding in your picture...

    I think Jesus would say success is using your abilities to do the very best you can in all you do, to love with His love and try and see others with his eyes.

    I think as a writer, it's important to write what we feel called to write, knowing that if we never are published, we are able to grow closer to Him through our writing and hopefully touch lives of others who read our work (friends, critique partners, contest judges, editors and agents who reject us, etc.). And if we do make a sale, success would be to continue to write what He leads us to write, all the while still loving as He loves and striving to see people through His eyes.

  6. Thought-provoking post, Niki! Thank you. I haven't read this book, though I have read The Tipping Point. Gladwell makes some interesting points.

    As Dina and Suzie said, I think Jesus would define success as faithfulness to Him, walking in His will.

  7. A wonderful review, Niki. I agree--it is encouraging, rather than discouraging, to think you can work hard and achieve a fairly lofty goal in 5 years. That concept is something I've suspected for some time when I look at people who have had great achievements--they take the time to work hard. I noticed that in my own kids, higher achievers versus lower achievers. Natural ability usually took second place. Sounds like a great read!

  8. Niki,

    I saw your remark about 8 comments on FB, then had a nice chuckle seeing I am the 8th to leave a comment! I would think Jesus would look at success as being able to reach at least one person and share His message. If this is how Jesus would measure things then you are truly very successful. Your writing is thought provoking and at times points out some areas we might have taken a misstep in a very gentle way. As your group of fans continues to grow I know you will be touching many hearts.

  9. You've given me a lot to think about. I do believe that those who succeed are often times those you would least likely expect. God always seems to choose the not so shining specimen of humanity to show his shining glory. Nothing can replace being prepared and diligent hard work and I believe God rewards those who whole heartedly apply themselves. Good thought provoking article Niki.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for commenting! To those of you at the conference I'm working really hard on not being green with envy!
    It's funny how we all agree about what true success is and where it comes from. It makes me realize that the pressure we experience to "succeed," whether by getting published, or by earning a degree, making X amount of money, or having a certain size of church, is pressure that's not coming from our spirits. It's coming from the outside! From that same pesky source that ruins Christmas by making us covet more, lust after things, and feel inadequate because we didn't get, or give, enough!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Oh, and my doggie, he's a West Highland White Terrier named Archie, and right now he smells like a skunk!

  11. What an amazing concept! I always figured you would have to spend 20+ years to master something. Does a parent master in less than 2 years because it's 24/7? I enjoyed your review, it was well written and gives a person hope that success is not so far off.

    lauradione1012 (@)

  12. Niki,

    Nice post. Made me want to read Gladwell's book, even though I was going to pass after reading reviews. Liked "The Tipping Point", but was unimpressed by "Blink."

    Your post also encouraged me to start writing fiction again--to persevere and put in the hours. I've been so overwhelemed by the new places God has taken me as a an agent that I've lost the places I have been. I have to get back to getting the butt in the chair and words on the page.

    Also, a bit of encouragement (I hope)--As an agent who reads at least 1000 pages of manuscripts a week, a rejection is sometimes a reflection of the writing, but it is just as often a reflection of the marketplace. I try in each rejection letter I have to send (and there are many) to say when the writing is beautiful, but the market is saturated for that paticular genre/theme, etc. Again, write, write, write, share with others, revise, revise, revise, submit, listen to the feedback you get and then write some more. Few people hit a home run their first few times at bat.

    Let me know how it goes. If you want to write a YA, I'd be happy to take a look at it.


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