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November 19, 2008

The Story of (Someone Else's) Success

Having role models can be a mixed blessing sometimes.

We’re all familiar with the positive aspects of focusing attention on those we admire. Whether it’s the company CEO, or a famous athlete, or simply an upstanding family person who seems to have his or her life in balance, those types of people are sources of inspiration and encouragement about what might be possible in our own lives.

Athletes tend to latch onto role models more frequently than the population at large. High school athletes make scholarship decisions based on which coaching guru they want to instruct them. Rookie professionals look to seasoned veterans for tips on how to succeed in the big leagues. Novice marathoners or triathletes seek advice and mentoring from hired coaches or experienced members of their training club. It’s basic human nature that in order to improve ourselves, we need to learn from those who are better than us.

Occasionally, however, consideration of someone else’s abilities or accomplishments is enough to make a person feel woefully inadequate. Sure, an African-American can be elected President, and a cancer survivor can win the Tour de France, and a college dropout can become the world’s richest man - but the amount of toil and commitment and (to some extent) good fortune that is required for somebody else to duplicate those achievements seems entirely too staggering to comprehend. Sometimes it’s easier to just let the great people do what they do, while the rest of us remain content with our own meager attempts to emulate them.

The reason all this comes to mind is because Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out this week.

It’s no secret around these parts that I’m completely in the tank for Gladwell. This isn’t a recent development - as the following paragraphs from a post I wrote in May of 2006 shortly after reading his then-current book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking should make perfectly clear:


Now, I just happen to have this thing about Malcolm Gladwell. He’s a brilliant writer with razor sharp insight, and has a way of writing about all manner of esoteric subjects in a way that reads like an espionage thriller. He can tell you about a syphilis epidemic in Baltimore, or an Ivy League admissions policy, or a retrospective analysis of the “Pepsi Challenge” taste tests in a style that’s not merely interesting – he actually makes you wonder why you didn’t realize these topics were so darn compelling a long time ago.

Over the past two years he has become my favorite author. I’ve also learned that he’s a passionate, knowledgeable sports fan, a runner, and – to top it all off – he even has a blog. It’s probably a good thing I don’t actually know him, or else I’d be in danger of developing some kind of man-crush on him.


The new book is called Outliers: The Story of Success, and it deals – ironically enough, in the context of this post – with the factors that determine individual success. He looks at conventional beliefs about how great people succeed in life - whether it's gifted physical ability, innate genius, privileged socioeconomic origins, or just good-old fashioned hard work – and analyzes the relative validity of such theories in modern-day society. He discusses the underlying reasons why successful people excel, and what the rest of us can learn from them.

(On a completely random side note: be sure to check out the link above - if not to buy the book, at least to see Gladwell's fantastic Sideshow Bob hairdo. I swear, if growing my hair like that would make me an author, I'd do it in a heartbeat. You think I'm kidding.)

Obviously, this new book has jumped straight to the top of my current reading list – but in some ways, I’m almost reluctant to read it. Whenever I read anything written by Gladwell – either from his New Yorker articles or his books – I’m completely astonished at his writing ability. I marvel at the way he strings words together, and at how he finds the most interesting angles to any subject matter he tackles. He makes me think about everyday situations in ways that are both unconventional, and unexpectedly insightful.

I try to emulate his style a little bit in my own writing – which is somewhat akin to a Pee Wee hoops player saying he emulates LeBron James. Maybe I can do a crossover dribble or sink a long-range jump shot every now and then - but I can’t soar above the rim, and I can’t carry a team on my back night after night, and I can’t make it all look nearly as effortless as the superstars do. Reading Gladwell’s stuff makes me want to be a better writer; at the same time, it makes me realize that I’ll never be a great writer.

In that respect, I’ve learned to enjoy his works for the achievements they are, and take the good feelings along with the bad. After all, those mixed emotions are just part of the tradeoff with having such accomplished role models.


Victoria 11/18/08, 10:49 PM  

I love Malcom Gladwell's writing so much I would consider naming my first-born after him or bearing his children. Except for the fact that people would think I was naming my kid after Malcom X, I'm sure, and for a half-white (or more) baby, that might be a little strange. Plus, he's kind of strange-looking (no disrespect, Malcom, if you happen to be reading these comments). I read the article excerpted in the New Yorker, but I didn't realize it was from a new book. I'm so thrilled to be able to look forward to reading it!

Dave 11/19/08, 5:41 AM  

Have always been a big Gladwell fan. "Tipping Point" was a great book. Plus he can write like a MUTHA!

Backofpack 11/19/08, 8:04 AM  

I have to admit, I've never heard of him, but now you have me interested. I'll look for it at the library.

And on a side note - I know a couple guys with that 'do. Don't go there Donald, just don't.

Deene 11/19/08, 8:23 AM  

i've been looking for more reads, thanks for the tip.

stronger 11/19/08, 2:09 PM  

I head him yesterday on NPR as I was driving home. I was reading thinking...this sounds so familiar...

Dori 11/19/08, 10:44 PM  

I've never hoid of him, but I love your writing. If I read his book, will I succeed in getting more comments on my posts? :-)

Gretchen 11/20/08, 4:47 PM  

Ooh I just heard him on NPR yesterday talking aobut this book! Now it sounds even more intriguing.
I sincerely disagree with you about your writing not being great, although I have admittedly not read Malcom Gladwell yet. Perhaps he will set the new standard. Regardless, I think it is a mistake to think your writing will never reach those heights. Or at least, it would be a mistake not to sincerely aspire to reach them.

David 11/20/08, 5:41 PM  

Gladwell Shmadwell. I'm for reading the Donald. I may mosey on over to see what Sideshow Bob is up to but Donald's my man!

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