Reading to change


When we pick up a book, be it paperback, hardback or ebook, we expect to be different when we have reached the last page. We might be emotionally different, having traveled our way through the highs and lows of a gripping story. We might be physically different, perhaps relaxed or motivated to face the world again.

Halfway through Outliers: The Story of Success, I was certainly feeling different. Unpleasantly so.

Apparently, I was born at the wrong time and wrong place to ever be overwhelmingly successful, even though my mother would often say I could be anything I wanted to be.

(My mum, on reading that last paragraph will arc up because she is quite sure my life is successful. “You’ve done so many interesting things!”, she will say, and I will grant her that that is a type of success.)

Other readers might, unlike me, feel they have been released by Gladwell (the author) from the burden of chasing success – “No point”, they might say.

Gladwell set out in this book to bust the success myth, the one that says success is only the result of personal and individual achievement. He points out that the well-worn cliche of 10,000 hours of practice before mastery is not a cliche and provides real world examples where the super successful had the opportunities to put in the 10,000 hours; opportunities that Gladwell describes as lucky intersections of often unrelated events.

It would have all ended in despondency if I hadn’t continued reading.

However, don’t be mislead. Outliers is not a self-help book, but in its pages are some hints to improve one’s lot in life. The first is confirmation that 10,000 hours is a well-researched fact.

The second is understanding the influence of one’s cultural legacy (and, No, I’m not about to buy into the Australia debate.)

Gladwell cited the example of Korean Air, explaining how the strict hierarchy of Korean society limited communication in their planes’ cockpits and resulted in an horrendous crash rate. Turning that around was achieved by declaring the cockpit to be a culture-free zone and training the flight officers and crew to leave cultural habits and expectations at the door. This meant everyone was free to communicate as needed to ensure safety. Problems could be identified and voiced by anyone. The airline’s safety rating improved, dramatically.

I was reminded of my positive cultural legacy at a funeral just last week. I was reminded of my family’s pioneering past. Successful pioneers have a skill set that they pass on to the next generation. Gladwell’s research suggests that such cultural legacies remain long after the trigger for them has past.

To survive and succeed as a pioneer, there are (at least?) five skills or traits.

  1. Preparedness – this new start will require enough supplies to tide you over and the tools needed to get you established.
  2. Observation – watching, assessing, comparing, contrasting – all to work out what is going on and why.
  3. Problem Solving – when setting up in a new environment, everything is likely to be a problem that requires a solution.
  4. Ability to Build – it’s intrinsic to the idea of being a pioneer, to build a new life, and in our families’ case, it involved creating the physical buildings in which to live.
  5. Networking – help will be needed and you will be expected to help others as well.

Those are the positives. Are there any negatives? Anything the equivalent of Korean hierarchy limiting communication even in the face of impending doom?

In some ways, Yes. After investing so much, both emotionally and financially, it can be hard to look subjectively at what one has built. It can be hard to say “It’s time to move on” when circumstances strongly point to that as the best solution. If this component of the legacy is then passed on to the next generation, it can stifle development. If the trigger for the legacy has passed from memory, we may have no idea why we are failing.

For me, at this time, I can see that returning to permanent employment would be very comforting. But, when I look back at 20 years of successful casual employment, of repeatedly being a pioneer in a new work place, and compare that with the last 10 of permanency, I wonder if it’s the best move.

Society has changed and, while I might never be a example of an outlier in a future Gladwell book, I will need to draw on the positives of my cultural legacy to keep up with, and get ahead of, its changes.

The next step is to decide how to spend my next 10,000 hours!


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