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The Company We Keep--and the Environment We Make

Outliers As American's we're taught (sometimes implicitly) that we rise or fall on our own merits, that through our individual goals and activities we can achieve anything we want.  I've always had a problem with this philosophy. I've seen too many times how the greatest personal effort can die when you lack access to the resources and advantages enjoyed by some of your fellow citizens.

With this in mind, I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's new book, Outliers. In it, he argues that insanely successful people are less a product of their abilities than of a series of lucky breaks that can put them in the position to develop and/or take great advantage of those abilities.

Gladwell points out, for example, that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and several other high tech gurus happened to be born at a particular time (the mid 1950's) and in a particular place (Silicon Valley) that favored their specific talents. In turn, they had access to people and experiences that helped them build on their abilities. In other words, if Steve Jobs was born a few years earlier or in South Dakota,  I might not be writing this on a MacBook Pro.

What strikes me about Gladwell's premise is how it takes away from us this idea that somehow we're successful ONLY as a result of our individual talents. It reminds us that as much as we want to believe that we're products of our own efforts we are not. Time, place, our social environment--all of these have a far greater impact than we give them credit for.

Part of me feels a loss of control in this idea. If my success is a function of time, place and other people, then what the hell do I do with that?  At the same time, it removes a level of guilt--if I'm unsuccessful, then maybe it wasn't my fault after all.

What Outliers really left me thinking about, though, was the issue of the company we keep and the ways in which we create advantageous environments for the people around us. This seems particularly important in a networked world and in a world that currently seems to be falling apart. And it seems that we have more opportunities than we once did to spread our positive influence in ways that can make more people more successful.

So the question is, what can we do to support making more people into "Outliers"? How can we contribute to creating an environment that breeds success?


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I believe Outliers is a book under the Christmas tree destined for me. Thanks for the introduction.

Excellent final question. I often think of the environment that my students come from. Did their parents read to them as toddlers, surround them with love and opportunities to nurture their talents? Or are some students from disadvantaged environments who struggled through school because of their lack of support?

The primary job of a teacher is to try to ensure that no student is left behind, that instruction can be differentiated and scaffolded so that all students can progress in their learning.

Yes, teachers are contributing to environments that breed success for all students.

I'm looking forward to reading this book. Thanks for writing about it.

Michele - great post, great points.

Your question immediately made me think of this well-known post from 2007 at Wandering Ink - "How to Prevent Another Leonardo da Vinci."


I've been listening to the audiobook version of Outliers, and it's really great! Just as much as the aspects of background are important, though, I love the emphasis on hours of meticulous practice needed to become a true expert at something. At 10,000 hours to expertise, that means that if you spend the 5 hours or so you have a day in the classroom, 180 days a year, it takes 11 years to become an expert teacher. And that's only if you relentlessly practice and work on improving yourself as a teacher during every second you're in the classroom with kids. Definite food for thought.

This one's been rummaging around in my head as part of a blog post. Thanks for helping me get started on coalescing some thoughts.

"How can we contribute to creating an environment that breeds success?"

The first thing that popped into my head was we can all take a cue from Michelle Martin!

Among other things, you:

Pay attention when people create something good.

Ask questions and then take the answers seriously.

Treat others with respect.

Point to difficult things and include others in finding approaches to them.

Acknowledge mistakes as opportunities for learning.

There are many more, but reading your blog is always a tonic. You're someone too busy to be disillusioned.

I just finished the second chapter and I am as blown away as you were. I have been trying to figure out how many blog posts and comments would it take to have 10,000 hours of practice! I bet you are closer than I am!

Looking forward to finishing this book and then discussing it with Jeff, who also read it.

I'm afraid I'm one of those people who sees that there are opportunities everyday and a lot is individual effort. But perhaps not the way it is envisioned. In fact, I find the implications of this book (I have not read it so this is just my impression from everyone's comment)somewhat disturbing.

Support is very important for success. But so is failure and learning to learn from failure. I am a great example of this. While I am not a Bill Gates, I am successful in that my needs are met. I think part of the problem is how we define success. If it is monetary, than there are many who are not successful. The very poor (from which my father and mother-in-law came) need access to resources. They do not need to be told that they should "settle". But I have seen many rich people who are very unsuccessful (personally, professionally). They are crippled by expectations that they can never fail.

I have found a switch in attitude from when I was younger that only those with "connections" can succeed. Having lived in Europe, I know how crippling this can be as everything is dependent upon the perception that you were born into the right environment, taking away all hope. We are moving into a society in which more and more hope is being taken away through criticism, over reaction to mistakes, passing responsibility on to others (or looking for THE person responsible rather than sharing responsibility and moving on), taking away the opportunity to fail, and forcing people to accept dreams and definitions of success based on a pop culture (forcing square pegs into circles).

Thanks for all these great comments!

Paul, I definitely agree that one of our major roles in helping people to learn is creating an environment that supports different kinds of learners. I also have seen that it's about expectations, particularly with disadvantaged populations. I was at a conference last week with young people from Philadelphia schools who reported that one of the major things that turned them around was finding people who expected a LOT from them and were willing to support them in achieving those expectations. Too often, the response is to lower expectations when kids don't immediately achieve.

Robin--I definitely recommend the book. There's a lot more to it than what I wrote about here.

Emily--thanks for the link to the DaVinci post. I'd forgotten about that one but agree that it's very related.

Dan--that practice issue was a big point that I didn't really mention in this post. Although what what was interesting was that circumstances for many of these people (particularly Gates and Jobs) actually supported them in getting 10,000 hours of practice--another way that luck played a role. It's also an issue when you consider that getting the opportunity to practice in different areas of endeavor is a form of privilege in and of itself. If you have to work two jobs just to live, it's kind of hard to get in 10,000 hours of practice in coding or playing the piano.

John--thanks for your VERY kind words about what I do here. I'm blushing. :-) But glad to see that you feel I have an impact, which is one of the main things that keeps me going.

Britt--when you finish the book, you, Jeff and I should have a chat. Maybe it's time for another podcast?

Virginia--I agree that part of this is how we define success. That's something we all need to do for ourselves. I will say, though, that there is a very real issue around how circumstances can hold people back, particularly when it comes to poverty. I was recently reading the executive summary from the 2008/09 State of Working America and it points to the persistence of poverty in American society. Some excerpts:

"one recent study finds that about 60% of families that start in the bottom fifth are still there a decade later. At the other end of the income scale, 52% of families that start in the top fifth finish there at the
end of the decade."

"Another study finds the correlation between parents and children to be 0.6 (Mazumder 2005). This finding is significant because it implies that it would take a poor family of four with two children approximately nine to 10 generations—over 200 years—to achieve the income of the middle-income four-person family."

The full executive summary is here:


Michele: Almost every success story that Gladwell told in Outliers showed someone with the determination to drill down in their present situation to make the most of it- the Beatles playing all night gigs in Germany, the lawyer who got turned down by every law firm, etc. Those stories suggest we could remind people how there is something in their present limitations where they could do something with a vengeance, practice with their passion and refine their techniques for the next thing that comes along.

Very true, Tom. It's not just about the lucky breaks, but also being willing and able to take advantage of them. Good reminder.

Kia ora Michele.

As much as I'd love to come up with something innovative here, I can't. But I can come up with something logical.

I follow Tom's advice.

Entrepreneurs recognise this. Sales-people do. Network marketers and some bloggers do. Researchers also. I know that Lord Rutherford did. I do. And it works.

You say that because its the situational parameter that makes for success that you "feel a loss of control". The situational parameter IS something one can have control over. But it takes time, and observation of the opportunities.

Unfortunately for some who are wary of gambling, it also involves chance. But if I were to tell you that it's a bit like throwing a double six with two dice, you'd probably have a go.

If the situation was that you had to throw six double sixes, what would you do? Would you throw the dice six times and then give up? Some would.

But some of those might be tempted to stay in the game if in those first six throws they got one or maybe two double sixes (I know that's unlikely, but it's not impossible - in fact, it's not impossible to get six double sixes one after the other).

The thing is that to get the doubles, the participant has to be persistent. Through this quality, and it is a quality, the participant increases the situational condition for success.

You taught me a thing or two about blogging. By following your tips, I improved my situational position. I may not be any great shakes as a blogger, but by persisting through practice, some of my skills improve.

And by blogging regularly I improve all sorts of possibilities, not just the chance of upping my skills a bit.

A (successful) beggar also knows that persisting works. If he only gets a dime from every ninth person he begs from he could soon get a dollar in his pocket just by standing at a corner and asking every person he can who passes him.

Aside to what you've read about the Outliers, is the recent revelation about experts. Experts, it has been found, are made, not born. The expert violinist is an expert because she practiced for thousands of hours.


It is no accident that one of the critical criteria for qualifying as a pilot is time flying a plane - in hundreds and thousands of hours.

But experience alone does not guarantee success in piloting an aircraft, as the Korean Airways discovered. In this case, a cultural shift was needed, thereby improving a situational parameter.

The airway had a pilot failure rate greater than international standards. It was discovered that the situational difference that was so critical was a cultural aspect that prohibited a co-pilot from speaking up to a pilot when they were in the cockpit flying a plane. By changing the cultural practice of pilots and co-pilots, the incidence of pilot failure decreased by a significant amount resulting in safer flying all round.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

I'm a big Gladwell fan, so I'm hoping that Outliers is nestled under our Christmas tree too!

There's an "absent-minded professor" sort of fellow that I've worked with for several years. He's a mess; frequently unkempt with rumpled or slightly smelly clothes, not well-organized in a traditional sense, and with a quirky, often difficult-to-take personality. But I've always discreetly rallied for this guy. While his many flaws make it very difficult for managers who're trying to cookie-cutter him into their visions of how their staff should work, my "One Minute Manager" sense has always told me that there's a true spark of genius within this guy and if they'd tolerate his unconventional manners & means, he could shine. Only recently, his longtime manager finally took my advice and entrusted the guy with some big projects. "Mr. Quirky" was so empowered by just a dab of confidence & freedom to work in his own fashion that he has soared. Seeing the diamond-in-the-rough that I've been trying to champion for several years finally get a chance to shine made me kinda feel like a new parent all over again.

I could've easily been threatened by the notion that this guy would outshine me if ever given the right chance. In truth, I believe he really is technically more proficient than me. Rather than being threatened, I've encouraged others to see past his often-repellent mannerisms to see his unique, untapped strengths. Whereas most would've long since run the guy off (and several have tried to do so!) I think I may have finally helped to foster the right environment for him to flourish.

I believe there's much you can do to create an atmosphere for great success even as a colleague or coworker if you can set aside your own petty jealousy & competitiveness.

Ken, as always a wonderfully thoughtful response. You're very right about the issue of persistence and it's definitely another point that Gladwell makes. I wonder if we really have a culture of persistence and what we do to create and nurture one. My gut says that a lot of the short-term focus we see in organizations doesn't really support the idea of persisting.

Rob, what a wonderful story! I think the fact that you were able to keep championing for your co-worker says a lot about you and your own sense of self. Your story is also a good reminder of how we don't have to be in a supervisory position to create an environment of success. Thank you for sharing!

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