Success: causes and effects

An article on Fortune, interviews Malcolm Gladwell about his much talked about book, Outliers on the theory of how success happens.

Gladwell comments, “We have the kind of self-made-man myth, which says that super-successful people did it themselves. And we have a series of other beliefs that say that our personality, our intelligence, all of our innate characteristics are the primary driving force. It’s that cluster of things that I don’t agree with.”

He makes the point that the causes of success lie more in making the “most of a series of gifts that have been given to them by their culture or their history, by their generation.”


But it takes work, or practice, in fact it takes about 10,000 hours or about 10years to become outstanding in “any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern.”

Tony Schwartz elaborates on this concept of practice and blogs about the Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything:

  1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
  2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.
  3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.
  4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.
  5. Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.
  6. Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

A certain type of practice

For further reading on practice check out Cal Newport’s Study Hacks, and his concept of Deep and Deliberate Practice. Though his books and blog is primarily focused on students, he has won many professionals like me, who do ‘knowledge work’ for living, which is not unlike studying for a living.

Cal makes the very obvious but important point, that simply practice is not enough it must be focused and concentrated to yield the real results you’re aiming for.


Interestingly while Cal would agree with Tony Schwartz with his admonishment that focused practice is the way to go, he would take issue with his first comment about ‘following your passion.’ Instead, Cal suggests that the truly successful, happy, fulfilled people built a passion as a result of deliberate practice; they focused on becoming good at something. His basic position being: Passion Must Be Actively Pursued, Not Passively Waited On

The flip side of success

Further, it’s not just wanna-be’s looking at the super successful and wondering how they got there, it’s also the successful people themselves, who forget the origins (that as Gladwell points out: making the most of culture and surroundings) when they receive adulations on a regular basis, and suffer the deleterious effects of hubris.

As I wrote in my September e-newsletter, about the two CEO’s Mark McInnes (ex David Jones) and Mark Hurd (ex Hewlett-Packard), this is “Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power.”

In the end, to become and continue to be succesful we must:

  • focus on the conditions given to us,
  • fuel the fire of emotion to be the best we can,
  • resist the urge to flip and flop between disciplines in order that we can concentrate learning in one area
  • get some rest for the next bout of practice
  • and remember from where we came.


(Hat Tip: Robert Heller at Thinking Managers)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ganeshmuthiah

    Excellent Post :-)

    • Daniel Lock

      Thanks Ganesh!