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Bestselling author Gladwell tackling concept of success

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For generations, success has been attributed to hard work or a good education.

But some of the most successful people work smarter, not harder, while others cut their schooling short. What is it about them that sets them apart from the rest of us?

Superstar New Yorker journalist and author of bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink, Malcolm Gladwell is now tackling the concept of success.

In his latest book, the Ontario-born Gladwell brings a fresh point of view to the topic, challenging our perceptions about how we get to the top of the ladder.

Like his other bestsellers, Gladwell uses his straightforward style and ability to look at things in new ways. He takes a broad topic and pares it down into more manageable pieces, saying we focus too much on personal qualities and not enough on what makes that person tick.

To really understand what makes a person successful, he suggests we have to change how we think.

He explores the idea that successful people may be passionate and work hard, but there is always a societal or cultural advantage that acts as a bonus, giving them an edge that others don't have. He proposes that "extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity."

The reader explores new concepts and ways of thinking about success along with him. Gladwell tells stories that connect the reader with a person, place, situation or idea, making a new concept clear and easy to understand.

It's a smart approach but one that far too few writers use, and it makes all the difference.

Gladwell claims the things that help determine success are more about how a person was moulded and formed, by family, by culture and by society.

"The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine."

Would the Beatles be considered one of the greatest rock bands of all time without some of the unique opportunities they had?

What does intensive wet-rice farming have to do with a cultural affinity for mathematics in Asia? Gladwell examines these and other case studies, showing it isn't just genius that gets people to the top.

He deems some opportunities as man-made, but says that others are less obvious or completely out of a person's control. Everything from a person's cultural background to the decade they were born can affect a person's success.

Timing and hard work, says Gladwell, are everything, giving us opportunities that others may not have.

Gladwell believes that where we come from is just as important as the opportunities we're given, and our cultural background plays a large role in determining success.

"Success is not a random act," he says. "It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities."

Through his stories, he shows how our culture shapes our attitudes about individualism, forms how we relate to power and authority and teaches us to deal with ambiguity or uncertainty -- all factors affecting success.

In Outliers, Gladwell engages the reader and even manages to make it fun to read about complex theories. Once again, he successfully challenges society's way of looking at things, bringing fresh ideas and a new way of looking at things to the concept of success.


Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2008 D0

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