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More than your solitary smarts, your capacity to do something extraordinary depends on something else. It is your ability to build on the work of others from the past or with others at the same time. So said Malcolm Gladwell at last year’s New Yorker conference. This may be a key theme in Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t“, his next book, due out this November.

Here’s some of Gladwell’s related insights:

• To gain mastery of a topic typically takes 10,000 hours. Yet, breakthroughs are more likely to happen on the path to mastery when one collaborates with others who are dedicated to the same goal.

• Achieving a high score on an I.Q. test or demonstrating the ability to work hard, alone, for along time are not good indicators of our capacity to accomplish the remarkable today. Rather, it is our capacity to focus on a single topic with others, then synthesize the resulting research and ideas to create something singularly new and better.

• Thus your ability to find the best collaborators is key. This holds true, not only in hiring, picking a work team or selecting members for your volunteer committee – but in whom you marry or befriend. To make smarter choices, sidestep the mismatch problem. (As Gladwell has been writing and speaking about this tendancy it may be in the book). He writes that the mismatch happens when, “the criteria we use to prepare to assess someone’s ability to do a job, is radically out of step with the actual demands of the job itself.”

So what’s an outlier? Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it, “an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations.”

A black swan is an outlier, for example. Taleb writes, “Most people expect all swans to be white because that’s what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are.

Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past.”

Garry Peterson believes that, “black swans occur when there are significant mismatches between the models people use to understand the world and the subsequent expectations that those models produce and observations. In other words, black swans are model errors.”

Tip from the remarkable Taleb: Learn to expect the unexpected.
In fact, he “believes we create stories to convince ourselves that the future is predictable.” Curb the tendancy to quickly categorize.

Differing from Gladwell, in part, Taleb doubts that we can predict who will change the world. Also, Taleb vigorously disagrees with Gladwell’s coverage of his ideas, writing,” while flattering, (Gladwell) puts me in the wrong box –too much emphasis on … applications of my ideas to finance/economics, & less on the dynamics of historical events/philosophy of history, artistic success, technological luck, and general uncertainty in society.” Taleb’s not alone in challenging Gladwell’s leaps of thinking.

Like the growing slew of books on happiness signals a yearning in our culture today so, too, the popularity of story-filled guides to making smarter decisions seems to reflect another prevalent doubt in our increasing transient, complex world. See if you find Outliers to be a helpful follow-up to Sway and Nudge.

moving from me to we


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