What do LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, the Beatles and Bill Gates have in common? They are outliers. Merriam Webster definition: a person or thing that is atypical within a particular group, class, or category.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers begins with the observation that a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players are born in the earlier months of the calendar year. The reason behind this is that since youth hockey leagues determine eligibility by calendar year, children born on January 1 play in the same league as those born on December 31 in the same year. Because children born earlier in the year are statistically larger and more physically mature than their younger competitors, and they are often identified as better athletes, this leads to extra coaching and a higher likelihood of being selected for elite hockey leagues. This phenomenon in which “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is dubbed “accumulative advantage” by Gladwell, while sociologist Robert K. Merton calls it “the Matthew Effect“, named after a biblical verse in the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Outliers asserts that success depends on the idiosyncrasies of the selection process used to identify talent just as much as it does on the athletes’ natural abilities. But there’s an even bigger factor in creating an outlier.
A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the “10,000-Hour Rule”, based on a study by Anders Ericsson. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of the Beatles’ musical talents and Gates’ computer savvy as examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time the Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, and quotes a Beatles’ biographer, Philip Norman, as claiming “So by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. Gates’ mother was an executive at IBM with computer privileges. At a time when computer time to practice, write and debug code was at a premium, or not even available to nascent programmers, Bill Gates had access to the most advanced machines in the world.
Some athletes are extraordinarily gifted naturally and on talent alone can go far, and even farther if they are willing to hone their talent with dedicated practice. But what it takes to go beyond very good to being outlier good is vision or outrage. LeBron James is an outlier not because of his extraordinary talent, physical gifts and dedication. His vision to be an empire builder rather than just a basketball star is driving him to celebrity in entertainment as well as basketball. Michael Jordan was similar. He had the talent and the dedication to be the best basketball player in the world, but beyond that to not only endorse products but to create them and the marketing strategies. Tom Brady didn’t have extraordinary physical talent but he was able to harness extraordinary outrage at being slighted, from being the 199th player selected in the draft and being a backup instead of a starter most of his college and the first few years of his professional career. But he had a vision of what he could be, and the mental discipline to transcend his physical limitations.
Outliers are not just high achievers, they actually create new paradigms and become the sun around which their chosen professions revolve. Steve Jobs was not a brilliant programmer, but rather had the vision to create products that didn’t previously exist and the marketing strategies. Donald Trump was probably the least likely Presidential candidate imaginable, and destroyed the mold of campaigning and governing as President, in keeping with his vision. He is an outlier as a first term president, but if he wins in 2020, without being conformed to the presidential mold, what will he be? Note to Democrats: If the best you can do are the candidates who are already vying for your nomination, second term Trump will break another mold.