The Key to Success

gladwell outliersSeveral friends of mine recently told me that I simply must read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). Some of these friends are business types—they manage money or make lots of it—or both. I’m a college professor, so I suppose they hoped I might be inspired by the book and one day put my talents to better use; make some money, perhaps.

Gladwell’s Outliers grew out of a search for what sets apart successful people—“outliers” of society whose unusual success breaks the normal patterns of history. Most people, at least in the United States, explain success by looking to individual ability or genius. Gladwell points to the astounding number of self-help books and the genius-mystique surrounding technological trailblazers such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. The fascinating success of these “outliers” bolsters the appeal of the American myth of self-reliance.

In fact, Gladwell’s Outliers demonstrates what historians have told us all along: success isn’t simply the result of talent, self-determination, or genius alone. Success depends on context, community, and “coincidence.” Gladwell repeats a refrain throughout his book: some individuals “just happened” to have the right opportunities at the right time (whether the birth month of Canadian hockey players or unparalleled access to mainframe computers among up-and-coming techies in the 1960s and 1970s).

Wilfred Owen

Gladwell’s idea got me thinking about some modern examples from literary and religious history. Many could be mentioned, but here’s just one: The English World War I poet Wilfred Owen had the tools for writing great poetry from early in his life, but his “success” derived from more than inspired vision. Poet-soldiers such as Owen, writing amidst destruction and death during the Great War, moved to the forefront of early twentieth-century literature because their writings gave voice to profound suffering and doubt around them, within them:

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. (from “Dulce et Decorum Est”)

Owen also depended on community: especially the influence of literary mentors such as Siegfried Sassoon.

Owen’s story—an outlier in the history of literature—challenges popular notions of success. He didn’t strike it rich through his poems. He “just happened” to die in the war. That’s hardly the stuff of success, and not the kind of thing you’ll find recommended in the self-help section of the bookstore. But in the case of a poet writing about suffering in the “war to end all wars,” death built a legacy to complement profound poetic achievement.

In truth, Gladwell’s Outliers illustrates, for those seeking fame and fortune through business, what any student of history already knows: the community shapes the individual, context is everything, and there’s really no such thing as coincidence. Of course, history also reveals what most books on success willfully choose to forget: there’s more to success than can be measured in the course of a lifetime.

(With thanks to my friends Bryant, James, Ted, and Doug.)

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