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  • Lillian Milgram

Gladwell's Flawed Logic: The True "Story of Success"

Updated: Apr 14, 2023


Introduction

The American Dream: What is it? How is it achieved? In the description for Dr. Louis P. Masur’s History and American Studies course at Rutgers University, the American Dream is best defined as the idea that America is “... a place of self-improvement, upward mobility, and rags to riches. A place in which hard work and education are rewarded with economic security. A place of hope, of opportunity, and of freedom... A place where the individual can control his or her lot in life” (Somers, 2016). But are we really in control? The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell dissects and analyzes the “story of success,” exhibiting all of the external factors that influence an individual’s ability to make the climb to financial and social solvency. Gladwell qualifies the idea that prosperity is available to anyone who desires it, and he emphasizes the importance of acknowledging context and circumstance. He challenges the common notion of the American dream - that anyone can achieve anything independently. The idea that "if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires" is not a perfect formula (Gladwell, 2013, p. 151). To achieve greatness, one cannot solely rely on parentage and patronage, the circumstances of one birth or one’s family name. Neither can one rely on 10,000 hours of practice- the “magic number of greatness” (Gladwell, 2013, pg. 41). Gladwell’s claim, in truth, only lists the prerequisites for learning the skills and mastering the qualities that lead to high levels of success. With the qualities that he describes, a person can begin to learn to communicate, take and apply advice, and envision excellence, in a way that equips them to build rapport with others and fabricate the results that they desire.


Communication

When examining those who have already achieved Gladwell's version of success, it is evident that they share some common traits. Generally, respected people communicate assertively and engagingly, demanding attention, but they do it in a way in which their listeners do not even consider disregarding them. They develop skills for manipulating their perceivers' behavior, and in turn, they receive the respect that they deserve. This ability can only be gained with the employment of the prerequisites - hard work, assertion, and imagination - discussed by Gladwell in The Outliers. Essentially, Gladwell’s claim is not completely accurate because the traits he describes are merely the foundational precursors necessary for the mastery of concrete skills for “shaping the world to your desires.” Those who use their adroitness to achieve mastery in critical strengths, namely effective communication skills, have a greater advantage towards achieving ultimate success. Even universities have begun to recognize effective communication’s cruciality, and are thus investing significant time and money into exploring ways to sharpen these skills amongst their students. Though not yet universal, general education requirements in oral communication have been adopted by many schools. For example, George Mason University requires all students to enroll in either interpersonal and group communications or public speaking (George Mason University, 2020). Texas Tech University’s core curriculum requires an oral communication course as well (Texas Tech University, 2020).

The skills that these courses render are increasingly valued by professional employers, as understanding how to effectively communicate with others can help an individual maximize their influence. In addition to oral communication skills, there are innumerable ways in which body language can be used by an individual to emanate credibility. One example of a key physical communication skill that can be learned and used, but is not consciously utilized by most, is mirroring: a natural human behavior that leads a group or an individual to feel a harmonious state of understanding when listening to a speaker. Mirroring sends a subliminal message to the other party in an exchange that appeals to their instinct and communicates, “I am listening and we are developing a relationship.” Social psychologists Tanya L. Chartrand and John A. Bargh explored the power of mirroring with their study The Chameleon Effect: The Perception Behavior Link and Social Interaction.

“The chameleon effect refers to nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one's interaction partners, such that one’s behavior passively and unintentionally changes to match that of others in one's current social environment ... Experiment 1 showed that the motor behavior of participants unintentionally matched that of partners with whom they worked on a task. Experiment 2 had confederates mimic the posture and movement of participants and showed that mimicry facilitates the smoothness of interactions and increases liking between interaction partners. Experiment 3 showed that dispositionally empathetic individuals exhibit the chameleon effect to a greater extent than do other people” (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999).


This study proved that mirroring is a tool an individual can use to make his or her voice heard, and there are hundreds of other tools, both physical and verbal, that psychologists have proven to be as powerful. The contrast principle, for instance, explains how one’s judgment of an item can be biased by a similar item seen immediately before. For example, if one sees a shaggy poodle and is asked to rate its attractiveness on a scale of 1-10, one might give it an average score. However, if one sees an ungroomed, smelly, dirty, wet dog and then sees the shaggy poodle, one is more likely to rate it on the higher end of the scale. These principles could help a person receive approval when trying to take an initiative where they need a superior's permission, a step that can lead to success; ask for something outrageous that will surely be denied or rejected and subsequently make a smaller request for what you actually wanted in the first place. Robert Cialdini, a renowned psychologist, author, speaker, and professor, who has dedicated his life to the study of persuasion and influence developed this idea. After years of experimenting to understand social relevance, Cialdini determined that six core principles influence persuasion: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Let it be noted that The Outliers only considers 2 of these principles: commitment and consistency, and scarcity, further proving that Gladwell’s claim is incomplete.

By understanding and achieving mastery of all of Cialdini’s pillars of persuasion, not only the two elements discussed in The Outliers, an individual can become a better communicator and “shape the world to their desires.” It is especially important that an individual has an advanced understanding of the effectiveness of certain linguistic tricks in the digital age, where he or she may not always be able to use body language or persuasion tactics to influence others. The significance of word choice in achieving a desired result was tested in the 2011 study by the Department of Psychology at Stanford University and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where,


“Three randomized experiments found that subtle linguistic cues have the power to increase voting and related behavior. The phrasing of survey items was varied to frame voting either as the enactment of a personal identity (e.g.,“being a voter”) or as simply a behavior (e.g.,“voting”). As predicted, the personal-identity phrasing significantly increased interest in registering to vote (experiment 1) and, in two statewide elections in the United States, voter turnout as assessed by official state records (experiments 2 and 3). These results provide evidence that people are continually managing their self-concepts, seeking to assume or affirm valued personal identities. The results further demonstrate how this process can be channeled to motivate important socially relevant behavior” (Bryan, Dweck, Rogers, & Walton, 2011).


Effective use of linguistic skills affirm a person’s control of communication, negotiation, and persuasion, which is critical for their success. Even if the perfect person has incredible talent and dedication in a field, and was born at the right time, with the particular opportunities needed for success, they would still miss their window for achievement. Without manifesting the authority that one can only earn by efficiently communicating, success is unattainable.


Advice And Guidance

Another element that Gladwell missed is the importance of being savvy and using good judgment to accept guidance. The Outliers makes the claim that through a standard 10,000 hours of practice in a field, along with hard work and determination, success is inevitable. While practice and discipline, along with consistency, are of extreme importance to any individual focused on a goal, locking one’s gaze on a single objective with tunnel vision can and will set a person back. It is crucial to occasionally digress in order to get a complete view of one's studies or work within a field - perspective. Through reliance on older, more versed experts, a young and ambitious up-and-comer can gain access to valuable ideas or wisdom that they would not otherwise know. Through the use of secondary experience and purposeful listening, young professionals can create a unique opportunity for reflection and personal growth. No matter how intelligent or creative a young person is, he or she lacks the skills that detect opportunities and is too naive to notice malice; these are skills that are developed over time, time that a young person has not had. Mentors help young minds with great potential stay on the right track. Personally, this figure of guidance in social success is my grandmother. “Back in her day,” she was the it girl with the kind heart and dashing beauty that could “shape the world to her desires” with great ease. Today, in her seventies, she has mastered the power of subtle suggestion for the purpose of influence, and it has been a key factor in her success. A 1987 study by Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan found that, “manipulation is one means by which environments are altered to correspond to characteristics of individuals” (Buss, Higgins, Lauterbach, & Gomes, 1987). The researchers,


“Conducted two studies to identify the manipulation tactics that people use to elicit and terminate the actions of others. Factor analyses of four instruments revealed six types of tactics: charm, silent treatment, coercion, reason, regression, and debasement. Tactics of manipulation showed strong individual difference consistency across contexts. The charm tactic however was used more frequently for behavioral elicitation. Whereas the coercion and silent treatment tactics were used more frequently for behavioral termination” (Buss, Higgins, Lauterbach, & Gomes, 1987).


My grandma, well she is a charmer. She has a very good grasp on the ethics of positive manipulation, always acting honestly and with her heart, but certainly understands the power of a good nudge. When asked for her mantra, she laughed and responded, “to not only express what others want to hear, but to know how to face reality.” While hard work, assertion, and imagination are necessary for success, detaching in order to outwardly reflect on the realities of a situation, and thus take definitive control, is vital to reaching one’s goals. Her wisdom imparts the fact that outward communication is as critical as internal dialogue. My grandmother sent me an article to further my understanding that said,


“You have somewhere between 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts crossing your mind everyday. Each thought you have impacts how you feel, how you behave, and what kind of reality you live in; whether you are aware of it or not. Your thoughts form your mindset, and your mindset shapes your life... your brain ... reinforce[s] a specific version of reality, true or not, by selectively grooming the information you receive. [It] highlight[s] only information that matches your current beliefs, and filter[s] out competing information ... If something does get past your filter, it will automatically be minimized or dismissed (‘yes, but…’ is the formula for that one). It is not long before you begin to assume your personal views are the only correct ones, and just like that, your reality is shaped not just by facts, but by fact and beliefs. This is why cognitive roadblocks are so powerful.” (Wall, 2018).

My grandma’s advice and article grounded me. She changed my viewpoint, put me in the other party’s shoes, and showed me that it is as important to be a good listener and evaluator as it is to be a good discourcer. Ironically, Gladwell did not discuss mentors in The Outliers, despite the fact that he was so adamant about outliers’ luck in finding unique opportunities. He analyzes the aspects that led to the success of Bill Gates and The Beatles, but fails to credit the efforts of their respective mentors. Warren Buffet famously mentored Bill Gates. The Beatles received direction from George Martin, who Paul Macartney famously referred to as the “fifth beatle.” Each of these individuals worked hard and asserted themselves, used their mind and imagination, and mastered communication. Despite this, they eventually reached a point in their careers where they realized that they could not get any further without the help of a more experienced exemplar. A mentor can help a person who already has an upward momentum to separate their beliefs from their reality, guiding them towards success.


Setting Goals and Recognizing Opportunities

A final element that makes or breaks an individual’s ability to “shape the world to their desires” is vision. Another piece of advice from my grandmother is to “try not to hurt feelings, but always keep in mind the results you want to obtain when making paths or decisions.” People cannot always get exactly what they want out of the world, but if they have a clear goal, a sharp picture of perfection in their minds, shaping their world becomes easier. With an intended result established, individuals can work backwards without hesitation, taking steps and making strides, even when their initial attempts at success fail. It is evident that, without a deliberate finish line, hard work, assertion, and imagination are meaningless.We must learn to recognize luck and privilege in order to seize it. Gladwell did not talk about the countless opportunities and open doors that people who could be the next great outlier ignore daily; he did not discuss the sensibility and awareness that individuals need to have in order to pounce on these opportunities in the short windows of time when they present themselves.

My grandmother proceeded to share some personal stories about recognizing opportunity and making decisions with “your heart and your head.” Staying humble and not settling for less than one’s vision may not be a concept that has been proven with science, but it is a factor that sparks persistence and plays a key role in any person’s ability to succeed . As a young married woman living in Venezuela, she had a goal; a goal to own her dream house on a specific lot of land. With this endgame in mind, she learned deliberate use of communication, applied advice, and envisioned excellence. The lot and it's house were not for sale, but my grandma knocked on the door and asked the family living in it at what price they would be willing to sell. That was her first step in working backwards without hesitation and communicating effectively. My grandparents could not afford the lot at that time, but my grandma knew that was the house that she wanted to live in. She was not going to settle, as this was the only reality that she could envision; her target had already been determined. She and my grandfather saved until they could get a loan, as their parents had advised. Here, the role of a mentor proved to be essential. As demonstrated with this example, it is not the hard work, assertion, usage of mind, and creativity that lead a person to success. It is what people do with hard work, assertion, usage of mind, and creativity that contributes to their triumphs.


Conclusion

Gladwell’s claim that, "if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires" (2013, p. 151) is only a part of the recipe for success. In order to manifest one’s dreams, a person must use these traits that they were lucky enough to emerge from childhood with to develop the skills of effective communication and persuasion, take and apply advice, and envision clear goals. Now that universities and work environments are training their students and employees in the skills mentioned, individuals with the potential to become outliers will not be stagnant; they will go on to conquer in their field instead of wasting their talent and hard work, regardless of their origin story. The recipe for success is a person’s objective recognition of their innate strengths and weaknesses, conceptualization of their dreams, and procurement of the needed traits they are lacking. Without introspection, paired with a rational worldview, ultimate success cannot be reached.


References


Bryan, C. J., Dweck, C. S., Rogers, T., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self. Retrieved from https://stanford.app.box.com/s/kdwbolumuvqbzwla9bumyz3d519s7kvn

Buss, D. M., Higgins, D. S., Lauterbach, K., & Gomes, M. (1987). Tactics of Manipulation. Retrieved from https://labs.la.utexas.edu/buss/files/2015/09/tactics_of_manipulation_1987_jpsp.pdf

Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The Chameleon Effect: The Perception- Behavior Link and Social Interaction. Retrieved from https://acmelab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/1999_the_chameleon_effect.pdf

Cialdini, R B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston, MA: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-205-60999-6.

Cialdini, R. B. (2016). Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1501109790.

Gladwell, M. (2013). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company.

Salim, S. (2019, January 07). Bill Gates Reveals His Mantra for Success and Mentoring by Warren Buffet. Retrieved from https://www.digitalinformationworld.com/2019/01/bill-gates-success-warren-buffett.html

Siddiqui, A. (2020, July 06). Bill Gates attributes his success to this valuable lesson that he learned from Warren Buffett's life. Retrieved from https://www.digitalinformationworld.com/2020/07/bill-gates-attributes-his-success-to.html

Somers, S. (2016, July 15). The American Dream. Retrieved from https://sas.rutgers.edu/signature-courses/1935-the-american-dream

Wall, A. (2018, October 29). How to Shape Your Reality One Thought at a Time. Retrieved from https://lifeinfocussd.com/shape-world/

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