November 28, 2008
Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers,
has some implications for artists. Like his other books, The
Tipping Point and Blink, it's a
refreshing pop-culture examination of well-worked subject matter.
Outliers is about the phenomenon of success--what impedes it, and what
delivers it. It seems a lot of the qualities we think are going to produce
Raw talent, for example, is far down the list of Gladwell's succeeding virtues.
Being born in the right time and place, to the right parents is more where it's
at. He's sorry, but he thinks just too many wannabees are disadvantaged from the
get-go and don't really stand a chance. This kind of flies in the face of the
self-made-man concept--the guy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps
against terrible odds. Gladwell cites all sorts of really bright, well-educated
and naturally talented folks who never made it.
Gladwell really gets on track when he suggests that cognitively complex pursuits
require ten thousand hours to get good. Drawing on a supply of examples, the
rule seems to go for champion chess players, classical music composers, brain
surgeons, top hockey players and fine artists. We're talking fine artists here;
those who more or less know what they're doing.
"Success has to do with deliberate practice," says Gladwell.
"Practice must be focused, determined, and in an environment where there's
feedback." Further, the penchant for study, reflection, application and
hard work is often propelled by obsession. While obsessive behavior may be an
antisocial plague to societies and communities at large, it's total moxie when
lone practitioners catch it.
Natural common sense is a big factor too. "You need to have the ability to
gracefully navigate the world," says Gladwell. Apparently you need the
ego-force to get what you want. Moreover, no one in any significant profession
can do it without the help of others. Even hard-working ten-thousand-hour
obsessive-compulsive introverts have to learn to bring agents and enablers into
their sphere. For some, this comes naturally, even easily; for others,
particularly those in the outlier and self-starting professions, it's a long and
dusty road pocked with trial and error.
PS: "We vary greatly in the natural advantages that we've been given. The
world's not fair." (Malcolm
Esoterica: According to Gladwell, much of what we wish is beyond our control.
Some of us are more blessed than others and have opportunities to see things
others can't see. Poverty, particularly at the youth level, is highly
restrictive. In education, which is at the root of success, fancy new schools,
charismatic principals or new technologies won't fix things, because the fact is
poor kids don't have the opportunities at home during the school year, and have
scanty chances of stimulating summers.