January 30, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 1
The author of The Tipping Point and Blink attempts to unravel the mystery of truly exceptional talent.
How does one-in-a-billion talent develop? In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell examines the role that context plays in the lives of extraordinary achievers. Taking into consideration factors such as birth date, education, and parental occupations, Gladwell looks at Bill Gates, Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems), the Beatles, and other “outlier” success stories for clues about what shaped them. He devotes a chapter to the “10,000 hours” rule, noting how Bill Gates and Bill Joy both had access to computers at a time when they were rare and expensive, which enabled them each to log thousands of hours of practice time developing their skills. Gladwell is less convincing when he goes beyond individual stories and generalizes about cultural traits such as work ethic, but his case studies of Gates and Joy are compelling. His conclusion is that:
“…success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: where you were born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world.”
On the surface, there is nothing surprising about the role that context plays in creating the pre-conditions for success. So what does Gladwell’s work imply for NASA? At NASA, talent that would be exceptional in other settings is common — it is rocket science, after all. Outliers brings to mind Dr. Howard McCurdy’s Inside NASA, which took a rigorous look at the culture of NASA’s first generation. MCurdy, a professor at American University, conducted a NASA culture survey in 1988 that asked about parents’ occupations, and he found that over 60% of NASA employees who joined NASA or NACA between 1951-1969 were from working-class backgrounds; only 2% were the children of doctors, attorneys, or business executives. McCurdy concluded:
“Their life experiences taught them the value of hard work and honesty and a good technical education. The factors that attracted them to professions like engineering and science predisposed them to treat space flight problems as technical matters to be resolved through the application of strictly professional criteria.”
McCurdy and Gladwell would no doubt agree about one thing: there is no such thing as an overnight success.