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Flashback - Malcolm Gladwell

In order to achieve success you much try, try and try again.

Malcolm Gladwell

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Russ flashes back to his interview from early this year with Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. Gladwell offers fascinating perspectives on Outliers, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Cezanne, and Picasso.

Full Interview text

Russ: This is The BusinessMakers Show heard hear and online at Now its time for the Aflac BusinessMakers Flashback, brought to you by Aflac, ask about it at work. And this morning we are going to roll back about a week ago when I got to sit down face to face with Malcolm Gladwell, aurthor of The Tipping Point, Blink and now Outliers. Malcolm, welcome to the BusinessMakers Show.

Malcolm: Well, glad to be here.

Russ: It's really a pleasure to have you. Well, I'm certain my audience is familiar with all of your successful books. Maybe not quite so much with the most recent one, Outliers. So why don't you start by sort of sharing the basis of the book the Outliers.

Malcolm: Well, the book is an attempt to re-examine our myths about success. And it makes the argument that we have overestimated the role of the individual in success, and underestimated the role of all those around the individual. Culture generation, lucky breaks, you know, parents, great-great grandparents, I mean, all these kinds of, of things which I think we sort of know in our hearts matter but I think we have underestimated just how much they do and just how much they determine who gets to win and who doesn't.

Russ: Well, I think that's compatible with a lot of what we talk about on the BusinessMaker's Show. Most of our audience is right here in the United States of America with big-time opportunity. But I also think that most of our innovators, really there's a whole lot of personal drive, the whole meritocracy thing. We really like to champion that cause and I wonder as I read Outliers if you've somewhat diminished those parts of the success formula?

Malcolm: Well, I don't know. I mean, what I'm trying to do is to balance the contribution of the individual with the contribution of others. So I tell the story, for example, of the Beatles. Classic group of innovators, right?

Russ: Right.

Malcolm: And I'm really interested in this time they spend in Hamburg between 1960 and '62, when they're still teenagers and they're the struggling garage band in Liverpool and they get this chance to go to Germany and they play in a strip club. And they're the house band, and they play eight-hour sets, seven days a week, for months at a time. And so by the time they leave Hamburg, they have turned themselves by virtue of that extraordinary apprenticeship, they have turned themselves into a great rock and roll band.

Russ: Okay.

Malcolm: And it's after then that that they go, that they go to America and become this extraordinary success story. Now in that story there's two sides to it. The one side is that very, very few bands ever get a chance to play that much. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play and not just play, you know, it was to play eight hour sets and to really learn the basics of rock and roll, to be forced to master all kinds of genres of music, to be forced to improvise, to learn how to play together as a band, all these kinds of things they learned in the crucible of Hamburg. That was an extraordinary opportunity. That's part of it. The other part, of course, is that they seized that opportunity. Many, many bands forced to play eight-hour sets in a strip club in Hamburg would have quit and gone home.

Russ: Right.

Malcolm: And also many, many bands could have done that without taking, understanding that the opportunity was an opportunity to learn rock and roll. The Beatles used that opportunity to further themselves and better themselves as a band. So you have two things going on here. You have, one is the world gave them a golden opportunity, and two, they were savvy enough and ambitious enough to understand and make the best use of that opportunity. That's to me what innovation is, but you can't tell one side of the story without telling the other.

Russ: Absolutely. Totally agree with that. In fact, very early on in your book you start telling these stories about how important it is in some sporting events the birth date, the birth month of the participant. And that one sort of scared me when you headed down that path. I was going oh, my goodness. Are we going back to finding out whether or not, you know, I'm a Sagittarius or not and that plays a role. But share that.

Malcolm: When you look at soccer, baseball, professional baseball, professional hockey, you find the same thing, which is that you find that the players at the professional level, at elite levels, are overwhelmingly born in very specific parts of the year. So in hockey, most hockey players are born in January, February and March . And same thing with soccer. And most baseball players are born in late summer, and the reason for that is in all of those sports there's a cut-off date for age class eligibility. In hockey it's January 1st. and so when we start recruiting kids for all-star teams at the age of nine and ten, as we do, and we select the best to give them specialized coaching and put them on traveling squads and such, the kids that we're selecting, who's the best at the age of nine and ten?

Russ: The oldest.

Malcolm: Well, the oldest kid. So we're giving this opportunity to the oldest kids and then after seven, eight and nine years of getting all the practice time and getting the best coaching and being in the most encouraging environments, those kids really are the best. Now once again this is this mixture of two things. We're not saying that hockey players born in January, February and March have no talent, they're incredibly talented. What we're saying is that their talent got a chance to blossom; they got access to this opportunity of extra practice and better coaching and more games, which they seized and made the best use of, but not everybody got the same access.

Russ: They had an advantage.

Malcolm: They had an advantage.

Russ: And you essentially have statistics that applies that same argument to even sort of school grades and what time you're born. In that regard, would you actually encourage parents to sort of almost hold back their child so that their...

Malcolm: Parents are already doing that. Until the school system wakes up and starts dividing up kids, basically you see the exact same thing with kids in schools that even as late as-if you look at the numbers of kids who go to college, a kid who is in the relatively oldest part of their school year is 11 percent more likely to go to college than the kid in the relatively youngest cohort of their school year. Until the school systems wake up and start dividing up kids by birth month in elementary and middle school, I think parents should hold their kids back. I mean, it's a stupid system and you've got to deal with it somehow. You know, you have to sort of take seriously the fact that the story of who succeeds is not just a simple matter of who has the most talent; there's all kinds of other things in the equation.

Russ: Is there a specific message in the Outliers that an aspiring entrepreneur could hang onto and use?

Malcolm: Yeah. There is, I mean, to me the most, one of the most powerful chapters in the book is I tell the story of the group of men, and they were all men, who rose to the top of the legal profession in New York in the '70s and '80s and '90s. And I talk about the fact that they all have the same background; they are all the sons of Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York in public schools in the '40s and NYU Law School in the '60s-'50s and '60s. And what's interesting with those people is that when they first came out of law school in the '50s they could not get jobs at the major New York law firms because they were Jewish; they were locked out.

Malcolm: And what did they do? They didn't quit the law; they didn't go home with their tail between their legs. They started their own little law firms and they applied themselves to those areas of the law that the big firms didn't want to touch. And as it turns out, those areas of the law that the big firms didn't want to touch were bankruptcy litigation and takeover law, which within 20 years was what corporate law was. It's a wonderful lesson to innovators that a disadvantage can be an advantage, if you are willing to not give up, to persist and to understand that the world sometimes plays tricks on us. And the people who think that they are locking you out of an opportunity may not be at all. And sometimes things that look like they're dead ends are in fact these marvelous bridges to the future.

Russ: Cool. We talk about persistence playing a huge role in lots of entrepreneur success stories, and speaking of persistence, I heard you speak about a year ago, and you were telling the story back then about how society had changed and wanted instantaneous success now. And I believe you compared Picasso to Cezanne and then Fleetwood Mac to maybe one of the boy bands. I thought that was just a fascinating story. Share that with our listeners.

Malcolm: I got really interested in the work of this really brilliant economist, David Gellinson, who divides innovators into two groups, those he calls conceptual innovators, the people who have the big, bold revolutionary idea. And those who work more slowly through experimentation. And Cezanne is a classical example of that latter category. He's a guy who-you know, one of the greatest painters of all time, does not become famous until he's in his '60s. He does all his great work at the end of his life, as opposed to Picasso, who does his best work in his '20s. Same thing with Fleetwood Mac, you know, I use that example because we all remember that band.

Russ: Absolutely.

Malcolm: And we all remember Rumors. But we forget that Rumors was their 16th album. They'd been around for 10 years, you know, knocking around, not that successful, but learning their craft slowly and carefully until they got to the point in the early '70s when they put it all together and produced one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. But it's so interesting to me that we tell that story about Fleetwood Mac and we neglect to tell the most critical detail of all, which is that was album 16.

Russ: Right, and I believe-and your point too is that you're worried that we're in this era now of instant gratification and maybe the future Fleetwood Macs might not...

Malcolm: Well, the music industry would never wait 16 albums for someone to hit anymore, and that's a shame. It says that if we want innovation to flourish, we have to be more than simply open-minded, we have to be patient.

Russ: Great.

Malcolm: And that's a critical thing.

Russ: Well, Malcolm, I really appreciate you sharing your time with the BusinessMaker's.

Malcolm: Thank you so much, Russ.

Russ: And that wraps up my discussion with Malcolm Gladwell. And that concludes the Aflac BusinessMakers Flashback, brought to you by Aflac, ask about it at work. And now it's time for another Advantage Point, so let's welcome Katie Laird.

[Advantage Point]

Russ: And you are listening to The BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at

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