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Malcolm Gladwell's Classic Book Contains Timeless Lessons for Success

The invaluable lessons young entrepreneurs can learn from the book 'Outliers,' by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

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 The writings of New York Times best-selling author and public speaker Malcolm Gladwell have inspired and intrigued readers across the globe. His book Outliers, which explores the differentiators that lead to success, contains lessons that hit close to home for entrepreneurs.

In the book, Gladwell investigates the complex relationships among individual talent, hard work, opportunity, and luck. “Outliers” are the highly successful entrepreneurs, famous academics and star athletes that rise to the top.

Many of his concepts are applicable to the personal and professional experiences of the women and men who venture out on their own. Here are three key lessons from Outliers that I found to connect clearly to my own entrepreneurial journey.

The Self-Made Man

First, Gladwell believes the idea of a “self-made” man or woman is fiction, because everyone is shaped by outside forces and circumstances beyond their control, and he is right.  I personally have never described myself as “self-made,” because of all the tremendous advantages and benefits I have enjoyed since birth.

I was lucky to be born in the United States to a middle-class family that guaranteed safety and security. All of the basic needs defined in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs were met. I also grew up in a family that celebrated learning, education, and growth and my parents encouraged my siblings and me to find our paths and pursue areas of interest.

I am grateful for this reality and the backing of my parents, who always made sure that my brothers and I were loved and supported.

Today, I am trying to do the same for my own children. Thankfully I had great role models who to set the standard.

Clocking Your 10,000 Hours

Second, Gladwell posits that for anyone to become an expert in a specific arena or skill, they must first devote a minimum of 10,000 hours to the activity. He offers multiple examples, including the Beatles mastering musicianship playing long gigs in Germany and Bill Gates exploring the computers conveniently located across the street from his high school where he met his future business partner.

Hands-on experience is often the best teacher, and for me it came early in my career employed by an intense, Washington-based advocacy organization that taught me the basics of strategic communications, skills which I still employ today as CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan. For years, I worked extremely long days at the direction of smart people who were extremely dedicated and modeled high-integrity leadership.

Due to this opportunity, I was able to move much faster through my requisite 10,000 hours and gain exposure to more valuable activities at an earlier age than many others. I didn’t have to spend years wading through a series of disappointing jobs, which is often what happens to young people entering the workforce.

Practical Intelligence as a Differentiator 

Third, Gladwell notes a clear difference between practical intelligence and academic intelligence, holding up practical intelligence as a critical driver of success. I share the view that real-life lessons are markedly different than academic learning.

In Outliers, the author cites numerous examples of people who are amazingly intelligent, but not necessarily successful in their careers. Some have a hard time applying the intelligence of academia to a real-world setting.

Knowing how to apply what you have learned to real-life, being resourceful, learning to engage others, and knowing how to tap into a network of people who can assist is the foundation of practical intelligence. This balance is incredibly valuable in the public relations space.

The most remarkable PR professionals are naturally curious, unafraid to engage with other people. Being unafraid to ask for help or to talk to people are skills that offer a huge advantage when it comes to getting ahead. Essentially, this is the successful application of practical intelligence and should be a priority. 

Closer to home, I believe it will be far less important how my children score on standardized academic tests than if they can successfully apply practical intelligence in this increasingly connected, dizzying, fast-moving world.  My hope for them is that they will be lifelong learners, able to reach high levels of success in life by being positive contributors within their community.

Practical, emotional intelligence is a concept that my leadership team and I seek to reinforce with our colleagues. Having a high level of practical intelligence not only provides an advantage in a work environment but also on a personal level.

We encourage every one of our employees to use their time at work and home to improve themselves professionally and personally, finding ways to make positive contributions in as many ways as they can.

The Journey of Business and Life

An entrepreneur’s journey through recognizing the unique circumstances that gave them their tipping point for success is ongoing. Moreover, putting in the hours to reach and maintain expertise in a particular field never really ends. For business owners and other leaders, possessing the ability to pragmatically reflect on what makes them an outlier sets them up for success in a world where the odds are not always in your favor.

Gladwell’s Outliers provides a clear recipe for accomplishment: recognize and take advantage of the gifts and circumstances beyond your control, develop practical intelligence, and rapidly acquire the requisite 10,000 hours needed for mastery of any area of interest. With the right focus, success becomes less elusive and more inevitable.

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Evan Nierman is founder and CEO of Red Banyan, a respected international-crisis public-relations firm. He is also the author of the bestselling book "Crisis Averted: PR Strategies to Protect Your Reputation and the Bottom Line."