Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and the Real Reason You Are a Successful Writer
Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success challenges assumptions about innate genius and natural-born talent. Through a series of detailed examples, Gladwell explains away these gifts by attributing them to practice, timing, circumstance, upbringing, culture, and opportunity. In other words, those really smart, successful people we admire—Mozart, Bill Gates, the Beatles—weren't born with natural talent. Instead, they had the right upbringing, were in the right place at the right time, and through 10,000 hours of hard work and a few lucky opportunities, landed success.
Although Gladwell's Outliers has been criticized for drawing generalizations from a "flimsy selection of colorful anecdotes and stories," and his argument borders "social predestination," according to the New York Times, Gladwell's conclusions do provoke a lot of thought and self-reflection. If you look at the reasons why you're a successful writer, you may find it was due more to circumstance, practice, and upbringing than any gift you were imbued with from birth.
For example, rather than this model of success:
This is really what's going on:
Gladwell says most experts accrue about 10,000 hours of practice before they develop their talent. For example, the Beatles spent two years in Germany playing long hours each day (8 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a good chunk of the year) before they became famous. Bill Gates spent hours and hours programming (20 to 30 hours a week), skipping athletics and even sneaking out at night to get in computer time. Although Mozart was skilled at the piano, he didn't start writing his own compositions until he reached 21 years of age (prior to that, he mostly played compositions that others wrote). If you add up all the hours of practice from those who possess talent, and compare them to those who lack talent, the numbers explain a lot.
Gladwell relates several examples of people who were successful because they had the right skills at the right time. For example, William Joy (who wrote Unix) learned programming before it became popular. Just about the time he accrued 10,000 hours of programming practice, personal computing arrived, making the scene perfect for someone with his skillset to exploit the market.
As another example, in the 1940s and 50s, lawyers skilled in dealing with hostile takeovers and litigation suddenly became highly sought after, whereas years earlier the practice was considered shady. Those lawyers who accrued the practice before the skills were valued after became wildly successful.
To illustrate the importance of culture in success, Gladwell relates a story of a Colombian pilot who most likely crashed a plane because, even with diminishing fuel, he wasn't assertive enough to stand up to the intimidating control tower agents and demand to land. Cultures that encourage passive submission to hierarchy, or who phrase their questions in subtle, vague euphemisms, may find themselves at a disadvantage in some situations, such as the airplane cockpit.
Other times, your culture works for you. For example, Gladwell explains that Asians who spent centuries working in rice paddies, a type of farming that requires meticulous care all year long, passed on this work ethic to their posterity. Many of the inheritors of the rice-paddy culture apply the same diligence in their schoolwork. This diligence, of course, brings more success.
The way you were raised, namely with wealthy or less fortunate parents, also plays a role. Gladwell explains that when wealthy parents drive their children to the doctor, they tell their children things like, "Johnny, now if you have any questions, be sure to ask the doctor. This is your opportunity to talk to him about any health problems you're having…." And so on.
In contrast, the children of poor parents may feel less entitled to this same questioning. Instead, they accept what the doctor tells them straight out, without surfacing concerns or criticisms. Gladwell then uses Chris Langan, a genius with a 195 IQ who wasn't able to succeed in college, as an example. Langan failed to get a PhD (his goal) not because he lacked intelligence, but because he had a mentality to passively accept the conditions and limitations others imposed on him. Langan ended up dropping out of college because he couldn't convince his teachers to accommodate a simple change in his schedule (a change he needed because his truck broke and he could no longer get to campus early in the morning).
I found it impossible to read Outliers: The Story of Success without looking more closely at my own story of "success." Obviously I'm not a success like the people mentioned in his book, but I am a professional technical writer with a well-known blog and podcast. How did I manage that?
First, I wrote extensively in junior high, high school, and college. My father, a lover of literature, frequently put books in my hand, established a model of reading, and shared his passion for literature and ideas. My mother made every effort to open opportunities for me, sometimes working two jobs to help pay for my undergraduate education.
After college, I continued writing daily through a three-year MFA program at Columbia. Rather than study fiction or poetry, I studied literary nonfiction, particularly the personal essay. It was my good fortune that I graduated with the degree I did at the time I did. When I graduated in 2002, the blogosphere erupted. It was the perfect time for someone with skills in short personal essays to flourish.
My foray into podcasting follows a similar pattern. Although I don't have an audio engineering background, much of my success in podcasting comes from my interviewing skills, from my ability to find people and get them to open up. From 1994 to 1996, I spent two years as an LDS missionary in Venezuela, interacting with strangers ten hours a day. Each morning we ventured out into unknown barrios, knocking on doors, talking with people in the streets, talking with people in their homes, befriending members and anyone we came in contact with. It was a social immersion in another culture, but it was also training ground for podcasting, because although I'm generally shy and will keep to myself, I feel completely comfortable approaching strangers and interviewing them in a conversational, natural style. I developed a skill that became extremely useful at the right time.
My facility with WordPress also fits into the equation. I'm comfortable with WordPress and can create websites fairly easily, but it wasn't always this way. As a composition instructor at Columbia, I created a website for my students because I saw the value of student-to-student interaction. I then created an elaborate website teaching at the American University in Cairo. I spent months painstakingly figuring out how to do technical things. I also had a sister in graphic design and a brother-in-law in interaction design that I could occasionally rely upon for information.
More valuable than specific technical knowledge, though, I learned how to solve technical problems. I learned patience to search forums, persistence to query search engines, and a trial-and-error mentality that encouraged experimentation as a solution. This ability to continue plugging away at a problem, especially when the answer isn't easy, is a skill incredibly useful for IT (and it's what enables people to excel at math, according to a study Gladwell cites). When I stumbled upon WordPress, I already had hundreds of hours working with websites, and I brought that skillset to the existing scene and combined it with my writing and interviewing skills.
Besides timing and practice, I also attribute some of my success to lucky opportunities. When I applied for my first job in technical writing, the writing portfolio I submitted included an article about protein, which I'd written as a copywriter for a health company (a job I got through a connection from my techie sister and brother-in law). The hiring manager had a PhD in biology and could see that what I wrote about protein was, in fact, clear and accurate. Not only that, she knew it was a difficult concept to write about. It was precisely because of this article on protein that I was hired, even though I had no experience in technical writing. It was a lucky connection that opened up an opportunity for me.
I've also been fortunate to never have technical writing jobs that required more than 40-hour work weeks. I frequently hear about people routinely working 60-hour weeks, which would preclude any spare time for blogging and podcasting. Instead, even with three kids, a wife, and other commitments (such as being a scout leader), I manage to have most evenings and weekends free.
And speaking of that wife, she turns out to be another huge factor in my writing, since she not only writes in an engaging way that motivates and inspires me but also helps create a safe writing environment in our home. When I turn on my computer, she doesn't pull me away to mop the floor (not usually, anyway). Instead, she joins me and we write together on the couch, sharing thoughts and experiences with each other. When I married her, I never anticipated that our lives would be this way, but it did and has made a significant difference in finding time to write.
Not all of my background, however, works positively toward success. If there's one thing I'm conflicted about, it's my lack of a sense of entitlement. For example, I've always felt hesitant about returning items to stores, about raising my hand to offer criticisms or complaints in large groups. I sometimes devalue my contributions at work. Frequently I'm content to accept my surrounding conditions and the status quo because either I don't think I can change it, it requires too much effort, or I don't care.
After reading Outliers, I find myself acting more assertively. I catch myself when I'm being passive, or when I don't feel qualified or entitled to something.
I realize that a sense of entitlement is usually looked at negatively (certainly it can lead to arrogance and pride), but not having any sense of entitlement can be stifling. People who don't feel entitled to anything lack confidence and self-esteem. They accept their conditions. They do what their superiors tell them. They lack ambition and don't challenge the status quo. They second-guess their worth, attributing any modicum of competence to other people and circumstantial factors. It's a self-defeating, trapping mentality that limits your ability to succeed because you don't feel entitled to success.
My point is not to give a biography of my life, but rather to illustrate Gladwell's point: if you start looking at the underpinnings behind your success, you can start connecting the dots to see how you arrived where you did. It usually isn't that you have a knack for a certain profession, but that you acquired the necessary skills through practice, upbringing, environment, culture, and lucky opportunities.
Outliers reminds me of a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon, playing a poor teen from the South side of Boston confronts a rich MIT student. Damon tells him, You were born on third base and you think you hit a triple. In other words, we often over-attribute our writing successes to our natural talents. But really, those talents and abilities came about through a series of explainable, fortunate circumstances that we should recognize and be grateful for.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.