Outliers: The Fairy-Tale of Success

Here is a compressed re-write of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers for dummies (what Gladwell already writes for dummies? double dummies then). I’ve re-written it so that even a child can understand it. It currently has just introduction and epilogue. All the chapters are still missing, but not much is lost, I assure you.

Introduction: Seven at One Blow or As Luck Would Have It

World is full of tailors. Even in ancient times, people used to wear clothes, and that means, there were people who would sew them for people. But how many tailors end up with a beautiful princess? When our valiant tailor killed seven flies in one blow of a cloth, and proclaimed that with a belt, omitting any mention of flies, his life changed.  The king heard about this valiant tailor and gave him an assignment which he completed masterfully, and another, and our tailor was the man chosen to marry king’s daughter: a beautiful princes.

When you heard this story in your childhood, I’m sure you thought of the tailor as a brave guy who took up the challenges that the life presented him and climbed high in life through intelligence, presence of mind, and courage.

But what if I told you that these things, although necessary, were not sufficient?

Lets look at the story again. First, our man was a tailor. This  means that he had bunch of clothes lying around in his shop at arm’s length. Secondly, he was a bachelor and so did not have a wife clean up the shop for him, so there were lots of flies in his shop. Then comes the crucial part: the tailor was bad at his job, so he had not a lot of work to do, and hence he took up the classical pass-time of killing flies. For five-six years, he had been killing flies, three, four, even five hours a day. I’ll let you do that math. That’s a staggering 10,000+ hours of practice in killing flies. There is a well-known rule that says that if you practice anything for 10,000 hours or more, you become a master in that task.

So our tailor, was already the master of killing flies, when he was presented with an opportunity: tens of flies sitting on a piece of cake. He had a cloth handy, owing to his profession. The result was seven dead flies in one stroke.

But that is not all! Our tailor then decided to embroider this fact on a belt so that everyone will know his feat. But being a bad tailor, he consumed the space on belt so fast that he could not fit in the word flies, and hence he proclaimed, instead: “seven in one blow”.

People started talking about this ‘feat’, and this presented our tailor with a huge advantage, and he got commissioned by the king to tame the wild boar. Think again. The world is full of tailors. But how many tailors actually get commissioned to tame a wild boar? I’m not denying that our tailor was brave, intelligent, and quick-thinking. He was all that. But what differentiated him from others who were as brave, intelligent, or quick-thinking, are those three things: a weapon to kill flies handy, not much work leading to 10,000 hours of practice in killing flies, and shoddy work that meant he could not put all the words on the belt that he wanted.

These three things made him a world-famous ‘valiant tailor’

Epilogue: Cinderella Story

Everyone knows Cinderella as the ultimate rags-to-riches story. In fact, the tale of Cinderella is the quintessential fairy-tale — a young girl living in hostile family environment is blessed by the fairy-godmother for a night, and prince charming is mesmerized by her beauty, falling for her, to the extent that he sends his convoy to search for her in town, with the lost shoe. The story of Cinderella is the story of what pure beauty could achieve.

But think again. Was it only Cinderella’s beauty that got her the break, that is so coveted by millions of women? To answer that, let’s look at the story again.

The most important detail is this: Cinderella was a step-child, living with two step-sisters and a step-mother, all hostile to her. Admittedly, this prevented her from being taken to the royal ball with her step sisters. But far from being a disadvantage, this actually proved an advantage. How? In three ways. One: she was left behind at home. Think about it, if she were at ball, would the fairy-godmother have blessed her? Two, she made a late entry into a hall, thus making heads turn at her entry, with even the prince noticing her: if she had accompanied her sisters and mother, would she have got a similar attention? Three: since she had never really been used to latest fashions, she didn’t know how to run in the shoes fairy-godmother had given her, thus leaving behind one shoe for the prince to trace her.

These three combined changed Cinderella’s life dramatically, not her beauty, or any other quality. If Cinderella had entered the ball with similar clothes as her sisters, she would most likely not have been noticed by the prince. Because she was forced to stay home, she was helped by the fairy-godmother, and she ended up being the best dressed person at the ball, who entered late, thus getting a double-advantage. And because she did not know how to run in fancy shoes, she ended up leaving a trace for the prince to find her. Remember, that in this sequence, she did not have to be the ‘most beautiful’ women at the party. The prince was smitten due to combination of beauty, timing, and make-over.

What examination of these age-old tales tell us are two things. One: inherent qualities, like intelligent, beauty, wit, presence-of-mind, are not what makes people successful. Rather it’s seemingly inconsequential things like how many hours a day you’re wasting killing flies, or how badly your step-mother treats you, or how incompetent you’re at embroidering, or running with fancy shoes, that do. Two: if you read stories the way you want to read them, you could just about take any story to read, and it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference. You’ll be an outlier.

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