Surfing with Malcom Gladwell

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This is my first “book report” and the standard spoiler alert is in full effect. I recently read Maclom Gladwell’s book Outliers and wanted to talk about it. To start, it was a great book. For those of you that are not familiar with the writings of Malcom Gladwell, he has written two other books of note; The Tipping Point and Blink, which I highly recommend. Gladwell has a way of explaining concepts through story telling and Outliers is no exception.

The focus of this book is what makes people successful. The general assumption is that people succeed due to their innate ability. Gladwell dispels this myth through such concepts as the 10,000 hour rule, the general lack of geniuses ruling the world, the role of legacy and sharing people’s stories and their fortuitous timing. (The 10,000 hour rule states that a person has to work at something for 10,000 hours to master it.)

Gladwell’s recipe for success (and I’m paraphrasing here) is a combination of:

  1. Passion (for some-thing)
  2. Hard work
  3. and excellent timing.

Intelligence plays a part and yet it’s not the key factor as there are many people with extremely high IQs  (200!?!?!!) that are not raging success stories. Malcom also discusses creative intelligence, but does not dive very deep.

In the end he concludes that there are no outliers:

They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

As I read this book and all of the circumstances around being successful, the analogy that came to mind is surfing. For those of you that surf (or have tried surfing) you understand what it is to be a grommit; a beginner. You quickly realize that surfing is an amazing skill to attain. (You notice I did not say master since you never really master surfing.) Learning to surf is a humbling experience and I would not be surprised if Kelly Slater fits the 10,000 hour rule.

Surfing is a combination of different skills.

  1. You have to be able to “read the swells” to tell where the next set will come in
  2. You need to be able to tell where the wave will break relative to the shore
  3. You need to be able to position your self in the right spot relative to where the wave is breaking; not to far out and not to close to the shore
  4. and until you attain the skill, you need be strong enough to compensate for not having that skill fully defined

Surfing, like Gladwell’s examples of successful people, is a combination of having the skill to read the landscape (seascape), being in the right place at the right time (good fortune), having the capability to execute, having spent the time practicing and having the passion to be ride the wave.

By Michael Myers

I'm an Associate Teaching Professor of Digital Marketing at the Daniels College of Business, University of Denver. I also consult with startups and established brands. I'm currently focused on artificial intelligence, cognitive neuroscience and culture. I am married to an amazing woman and have two incredible children. I was raised in Colorado and spend my free time with family, biking, snowboarding and going to the Pacific Ocean to SCUBA dive and/or surf. I'm passionate about architecture, design, street art, photography and the art that tattooing has evolved into.

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