It’s time for the battle of the self-development book as we go head to head with two books who promise to give us “The story of success” and “How the best get better”. But can true greatness really be achieved by anyone and what makes someone so great that they lie so far outside of the ordinary? In the blue corner we have ‘Outliers’ and in the red corner we have ‘The Edge’. Ding ding, round one!
Kicking off in the blue corner of our book boxing ring, we have ‘Outliers’. Published in 2008 by Malcolm Gladwell (most known for his book, The Tipping Point), Outliers aims to explain why some people achieve so much more than others and to investigate whether there are commonalities that make some people lie outside of the ordinary. From professional athletes, to rock stars to billionaires, he aims to uncover where true greatness really comes from and if it is achievable for anyone of us. He goes to the corners of the world to identify who he believes truly represents greatness and what is it about their lives, personalities, skills that make them so statistically great?
For example, did you know that if you want to live the longest you need to live in Roseto, Pennsylvania? To have any chance of being picked for a hockey team in Canada you need to have been born in January, February or March? To be the best at your profession you need to dedicate exactly 10,000 hours of practice? Gladwell goes on to explain that whilst some of these claims have some (sometimes uncanny) truth to them, there is more to greatness than just one statistic. For example, the musicians who put in 10,000 hours of practice, also had natural talent, an ability to understand rhythm, and perhaps great musicality. Just living in Roseto, Pennsylvania isn’t enough alone to guarantee you long life.
Gladwell’s concern is that in certain historical texts, greatness happens to those who rise from nothing, but in actual fact he wants to demonstrate that factors of greatness can take several forms from parentage, to patronage, hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities or cultural legacies.
He uses the following analogy to set the scene for the book, and I have to admit, I rather like it, ‘Biologists often talk about the ‘ecology’ of an organism: the tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it came from the hardiest acorn, it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked it’s sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured. We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid? This book is not a book about tall trees. It’s a book about forests.’
Each chapter uncovers a different element of great nurturing forests, a theme of greatness and aims to dispel some myths about perceptions of greatness within that theme. As an example lets look at one of my favourite chapters and the introduction to the book.
The Roseto area of Pennsylvania is a small community of Italians who immigrated from the original Roseto community in Italy (100 miles southeast of Rome) in 1882 seeking a more prosperous future across the Atlantic. Initially only 11 people crossed the ocean (10 men and 1 boy), but each year the number of Roseto immigrants grew and grew following the dream of the New World. They built their own community in the hills with neatly packed and clustered two storey Italian buildings on the aptly named Garibaldi avenue (named after the great hero of Italian unification), which trickled up from the church and main square they had built at the heart of their community.
In the 1950’s a local doctor happened to notice that he never saw any patients under the age of 65 with heart disease from the community of Roseto. An investigation subsequently took part by a curious scientist who concluded that virtually no one under the age of fifty-five had died of a heart attack in the Roseto community. What’s astonishing about this is the time. The 50’s was pre cholesterol lowering drugs and any aggressive measures in lowering heart disease. It was the leading cause of death in men under the age of sixty five.
Digging further they found there was no suicide, no drug addiction and very little crime. No one on welfare, and no ulcers. These people were only dying of old age. What they then uncovered was that their diet was slightly more unhealthy than a typical Mediterranean one, being higher in fats, they smoked and many were suffering from obesity. They found no correlation between genetics and their statistics didn’t compare with other communities living in almost identical terrain.
There was only one factor left, Roseto itself. But what was so unique about this place that it enabled their people to live well into old age? They had smuggled over the ocean and transplanted the peasani culture of southern Italy and as such had created a ‘powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world’. They had respect for eachother, a strong sense of family loyalty and hierarchy, they had practiced faith and demonstrated particularly egalitarian attitudes (in other words they didn’t encourage the wealthy to flaunt their success and create societal segregation). So the moral of this chapter, live in a town or village which has a strong sense of community if you want to have a healthy heart.
Another great chapter looks into what makes great hockey players so great Canada. Now you may be surprised , shocked even to know that physical prowess and natural eye to hockey stick coordination has nothing to do with an individual’s ability to be a great hockey player in Canada. Yep the only thing you need to know is whether that person was born in January, February or March. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about stars and astrology here. Literally if you were born in January, February or March, you’d have more chance of getting into a professional hockey team.
The rationale? In Canada, the eligibility cut off for age class hockey is January 1.
So imagine a young boy of ten born January 2002 alongside another young boy of ten born December in the same year. The January boy has been alive for 10% longer than the December boy. He’s had twelve more months for his muscles to develop, his eye/hand coordination to develop, to toughen up…. Etc etc. Of course he stands a better chance than his December friend. And of course it goes on, the January-March boys get chosen young to enter youth teams, get expert coaches, extra hours of practice and continue to out perform a October-December boy born in the same year. Simple.
It’s quite interesting then in this case that Gladwell uncovers the responsibility that we all play (and by that he means ‘society’) in what we chose to accept as the parameters for those who get chosen and those who don’t! And of course birthday is not the only factor of what makes a great hockey player but it does put you at an advantage.
The book continues to unravel some other common myths like for example were Bill Gates and Scott McNealy really only successful because of the hours they spent ‘playing’ on computers at their university campus’s (it was the 70’s just before mainframe computers came of age). His view? Yes of course this will have impacted their ability to understand and therefore create, but he believes it was more the ‘opportunity’. They were both given unlimited access to this new toy (the computer) which only a handful of other universities were playing with at that time, giving them an advantage. Similarly did the Beatles get great because they practiced for hours and hours? Gladwell’s view? Not entirely. Yes some of their success is due to their natural musicality and writing skills and yes they did put in the hours and desire was there too. Gladwell argues a huge part of their success was the hours again, like Gates and McNealy. The Beatles got their break after being approached to play in Hamburg, which at the time required several hour long sets, uncommon at the time in the UK. This formed part of their basic training and gave them stamina, ability to learn quickly, a wide and varied back catalogue and of course confidence.
What I didn’t enjoy so much about Outliers was the level of detail in each chapter. It was tough going to read sometimes when a summary would have sufficed but then detail lends itself well to dispelling myths. What I loved about Gladwell’s book is that it takes a different perspective. He uncovers some myths about greatness and gives us something different to ponder about our beliefs using clever statistics to prove or dispel the theories. He discusses whether our cultural beliefs can get in the way of not only greatness but safety and survival when discussing the significantly higher number of airplane crashes by one culture of pilots over another. He also doesn’t under estimate the impact that hard graft and effort can have on greatness in his chapter ‘Rice paddies and Math tests’. It’s food for thought and certainly gives you a different take on some pre-supposed myths that we collect.
So following those statistics in the blue corner, is Michael Heppell’s ‘The Edge’. Very much a ‘how-to’ self development book which aims to help those with a desire to be great to be even greater by learning how to get the ‘edge’.
Heppell claims to have dedicated his life to learning what makes people successful. He’s been hot on their trails, uncovering the tracks they leave behind and trying to identify what we can learn from greatness. “He’s interviewed entrepreneurs, personalities and leaders from politics to education. He’s studied the daily habits of the elite and during this time he’s uncovered what they do that gives them ‘The Edge’”. He professes upfront that ‘Greatness’ is subjective in that who one person believes to be great may differ from another person’s view of greatness. Although he does caveat that he’s tried to observe and interview as many a variety of great people in order to pull together his view about the common themes that run throughout this elite tribe, it is of course his view of greatness.
Chapter themes vary greatly but the topics are all simple and easy to get your head around such as ‘Instinct, Intuition and Insight’, ‘Don’t curb your enthusiasm’, ‘Keep calm and carry on’, ‘Magic without misdirection’.
One of my favourite chapters (which is also one of the shortest) is ‘Health on the Edge’. What Heppell recognized in his research was that ‘when it comes to priorities, those with the Edge always prioritise health’. It’s refreshing for a self development book to take an holistic look at being great and tying the link between a healthy full achieving body and mind equaling greater possibilities of greatness. He goes on to outline the seven keys to staying healthy he discovered from his research;
- Ultra hydration
- Prioritising sleep
- Allowing recovery time
- Listening to your body
- Being open to opinion but trusting yourself
- Prevention is best
- It’s a way of life not a fad
Of course he explains in more detail what you need to do to achieve these but you’ll have to buy the book for those gems!
It’s a lovely book that you can read in one sitting, or dip in and out of at your convenience. It’s full of helpful tips and hints from how to give a killer sales pitch to creating a standing ovation to managing your resources smartly and having the confidence to fire resources which are no longer working successfully for you.
What it doesn’t do is bog you down in detail and where I feel it sometimes lacks in substance (I was left wanting more how to’s in several chapters rather than just insights) it gains in digestability. It’s a taster, a tempter, a teaser that will leave you with a dozen memorable and actionable things you can do differently today right now without having to think too deeply but also leave you hungry for more (if you’re one of the members of the elite Edgers team of course).
Of course, this being a fictional boxing match, it’s likely for dramatic effect, it would not conclude with a knock out. As with any great championship, a two minute one round knockout would be far less exciting than twelve rounds of blood sweat and tears. It is true, the statistics stack up for a fair match, one book is neither stronger or weaker than the other. Where Outliers creates intrigue and good thought-provoking-fodder, knocking myths out of the horizon and turning beliefs on their head with hard facts and unquestionable statistics, The Edge takes a simpler more practical helpful review of greatness and gives you something tangible to work with (you can’t of course change your date of birth or become Italian if you’re British, but you can learn how to listen to your body and manage your advisors well).
My concluding points? It’s a victory all round but for different reasons. If these two were one book, we’d have a bloomin brilliant book about brilliance!
There are of course many great self development books out there, but here is a short list of some of my favourite reads that have either inspired me, opened my mind or just been down right interesting:
- S.U.M.O. By Paul McGee
- Finding your own North Star by Martha Beck
- Law of Attraction by Michael J. Losier
- The NLP Coach by Ian McDermott and Wendy Jago
- The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss
- Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T Kiyosaki
- The Art of War for Executives by Donald G Krause
- Five People you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
- Time for a Story by Makebelieve
- Permission Marketing by Seth Godin
- The Mind Gym Book