Maybe success has less to do with talent than we think.
Last night I had the opportunity to see superstar author Malcolm Gladwell speak as part of the Rotman Integrative Thinking Experts Speaker Series. (How does one become a Thinking Expert, I wonder?) Gladwell is making the rounds to promote his latest book, Outliers, which explores the idea that things beyond your control, such as your birth date, may greatly influence whether or not you're successful (and we're not talking astrology).
A few ideas that came up during his talk that I thought I'd share:
Some disadvantages are actually advantages. Gladwell named a few of the top-performing NFL players, pointing out that most of them were not the top draft picks. Because the players were lower down on the wanted list, they were more inclined to work harder to prove themselves. Meanwhile, you get first-round picks skipping out on practice. So in the world of magazines, might we say that a smaller budget is a disadvantage that's actually an advantage? If we use awards as a yardstick, the smalls measure up pretty well.
There are two approaches to success: Capitalize on your strengths or compensate for your weaknesses. I say do both. The key here is to know what you're good at and what you're not so good at. Then work like the dickens to improve where you're weak, and don't neglect to market your strengths.
Being conscientious can lead to being successful. "You have to believe the application of effort gets you somewhere," said Gladwell, pointing out that this belief is lacking in Western cultures (many of us learn at a young age that working harder doesn't necessarily mean higher marks). I say, be conscientious and you'll stand out beyond 90 percent of the workforce.
It takes 10,000 hours of doing something to master it. Gladwell cites the concept that the top "geniuses" – artistic, business or otherwise – in the world have one very important thing in common: they've all spent about 10,000 hours practicing their craft. He talked about spending many years at the Washington Post as a reporter and the intense apprenticeship he went through as a writer. Writing nearly an article every day, he had the opportunity to hone his skill. But it wasn't just the time he put in: he also had the benefit of a slew of senior editors pushing him to do better work, teaching him how to become a better writer. And I couldn't help but think, are we missing this apprenticeship relationship in our field? Do we spend enough time teaching the young up-and-comers? Do we demand enough of them?
And finally, bon mots of the day: "Google is eroding the competitive advantage of those of us who are willing to go to the library."
• Talking about Fleetwood Mac at Gain: AIGA Business and Design Conference (Oct. 23–25, 2008).
• A feature on Gladwell in New York magazine (Nov. 9, 2008).
• Malcolm Gladwell's blog.