Joe Flom grew up desperately poor, the son of Eastern European immigrants. He never had an opportunity for an undergraduate degree. And yet, Flom went on to graduate from Harvard law at the top of his class. He is the sole living “named” partner of one of the largest, most powerful law firms in New York. His history is typical of those found in Outliers; a seemingly “rags-to-riches” success story of overcoming adversity and individualistic accomplishment. While not as glamorous as the stories of Bill Gates or The Beatles found in Outliers, the tale of Joe Flom is the kind of motivational story we thrive on. And like all the stories in Outliers, it’s a lie.
In this, his third book, author Malcolm Gladwell once again delights in challenging our understanding of how the world around us operates. From the relationship between Rice Patties and Math to identifying the greatest year in history to have been born, Gladwell uses the stories in Outliers to show how we are all products of our environment and our lineage. He has scientifically proven that our opportunity to succeed in life is largely dependent on the communities in which we are raised, and the opportunities that are presented to us as a result of that upbringing. The interesting twist is that it’s not usually the upbringing you might expect that leads to greatness. And, no matter what your lineage may predict, it acts as no more than a starting point from which to achieve greatness.
Let’s take a look, in a little more detail, at the story of Joe Flom. Here is a man with nothing – no money, no influence, and no connections of any kind to any of the major law firms in New York. Like any young, New York based law school graduate in the 1950s and 1960s, it was Flom’s dream to work for one of the large Manhattan firms; the firms that had been around since the 1800s and were a respected part of the community. The challenge was, Joe was Jewish. The good ol’ Yankee boys who ran the “white shoe firms” weren’t necessarily racist, it was simply a matter of fitting in. Flom was overweight. He spoke with an accent. His eyes were not blue and his hair was not blonde. Quite simply, he was not “white shoe material”. And as such, he was forced to join a smaller, startup firm and exist off the scraps that the major firms didn’t want to take (or decided were below their pay grade). Scraps like “mergers and acquisition”.
For those even remotely familiar with corporate law today, equating “mergers and acquisitions” to “scraps” may be more than a little puzzling. After all, mergers and acquisitions is an extremely profitable sector of the legal world (in the late 1980’s it peaked at almost 250 Billion dollars a year). But this was the 1960s, and takeovers were all but unheard of within the “respected” firms in New York. After all, this was an old boys club, and chances are if you were one of the major players in town, you attended the same country club as the owner of the company you wished to own. These were civilized matters to be handled in civilized ways. Then again, Joe Flom and his ostracized Jewish counterparts were working to keep food on the table, and as such any business was good business. And as it turned out, “mergers and acquisitions” was very good business.
Practicing for an Opportunity
“The lucky part was the unwillingness of the WASP firms to step into takeover law. But that word luck fails to capture the work and the efforts and the imagination and the acting on opportunities that might have been hidden and not so obvious.”
Outliers, page 129
So was it luck then? Simply a matter of “right place, right time” that allowed Flom to build his firm into the well respected (and highly profitable) empire it is today? The big guys didn’t want to touch takeovers, so Flom did, and as such happened to be an expert in the field by the time the industry became lucrative in the 1970s and 1980s. There was a factor of luck, surely. But, what Gladwell makes clear is that luck is a starting point. Lasting success requires a lot more than just good fortune.
Lasting success requires hard work. How much hard work? Oh, say… 10,000 hours worth.
“researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number [of practice hours] for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
Outliers, page 40
Drawing on examples from sports, music, computers and more, Gladwell hammers home the revelation that what separates the good, from the great, from the exceptional is one thing – hard work. In possibly the greatest finding of Outliers, we learn that in no cases does someone effortless rise to the top of their field. Granted, someone must possess a certain level of skill or certain “benchmark” characteristics in order to succeed in their chosen field (tough to find many 5’2″ basketball stars), but once that benchmark is met, what separates the good from the great is practice. (Michael Jordan is, after all, only 6’6″ – tall by “normal standards”, but fairly average in the professional basketball world)
As Gladwell points out, “practice isn’t something you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” (Outliers, page 42) Joe Flom reached the pinnacle of the legal world not because he was naturally a brilliant lawyer (although he was very good; aka was above the “benchmark” level) but because he practiced his craft for over fifteen years before it became the powerful industry it is today. Bill Gates, as another example from Outliers, had access to a computer in middle school (keep in mind, this was in 1968) and, because of his love of computers, spent as many hours as he could on it. He was given a rare opportunity and is no doubt quite intelligent, yet it was the hard work and practice that allowed him to capitalize on his good fortune. These are two of the countless examples of people who had a talent and had an opportunity, but then succeeded because they worked harder than anyone else. It doesn’t sound as sexy as “natural genius” or “prodigy”, but it’s true. Practice is the only path to true genius. So the trick is – how on earth do you stick with something for 10,000 hours?
“Hard work is only a prison sentence if it does not have meaning.”
Outliers, page 150
Bill Gates used to log 20 to 30 hours a week on his school machine – after hours, and on the weekends. NBA star and two MVP Steve Nash told a story once about getting up and practicing the morning after a championship game. And they didn’t do it because they felt pressured to “log hours”. They did it because they loved it. They did it because their work made them feel satisfied. Ask anyone at the top of their field and, if they give you an honest answer, they’ll tell you they truly enjoy what they do. “autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” (Outliers, page 149) You avoid the prison of hard work by finding something that you love, and then dedicating yourself to it. Finding an industry where you are rewarded for your efforts is the first step in the path to greatness. For Bill Gates, the reward was in the joy of further understanding a new technology and pushing the envelope as to it’s capabilities. For Joe Flom the reward was as simple as putting food on the table while knowing the more proficient he became at his craft, the more he could provide. Find your purpose for getting up in the morning, work hard at it, and there is nothing stopping you from becoming an Outlier yourself.
A worthy companion to Gladwell’s first two books, Outliers is a fascinating read and one that will redefine the way you look at success. But (and it’s a big but), Gladwell makes it very clear that all the opportunity in the world will not guarantee success if they are not coupled with a passion for what we do, and a dedication to perfecting our craft.