Creating successful societies


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Category: Reflections 15 Apr 12


In this rage-fuelled country, where illiteracy is high, where brutality is the norm, on the roads and in homes, where beauty queens, sporting heroes and entertainers are trotted out and paraded at major events, while the engines of growth, academia, science, technology and creators of institutions are palpably absent, it is a small miracle to see that Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business would pay a huge sum to a man for his ideas towards creating successful societies.

Itís a baby step towards humanising our increasingly dehumanised society. Here are excerpts of my exclusive interview with Malcolm Gladwell.

Q: What was the essence of your lecture on What makes the great ones great?

A: I touched on four lessons. The first one is how much work is necessary to achieve something. Effort plays a much larger role than raw talent in achieving success. I spoke of the 10,000-hour ruleóthe notion that you have to practise for ten years before you can get good at anything. For example, no one becomes a grandmaster at chess until they have been playing for at least 10,000 hours, or ten years.

Bill Gates began programming when he was 13, when he had access to a mainframe computer. He did nothing but programme until he founded Microsoft. He got to programme around the clock so he mastered it over ten years. Itís simple. Nothing happens without that amount of dedication and hard work.

Secondly, I made a point about compensation. The idea that the very successful are not those who have capitalised on their strengths but have compensated for their weaknesses. A recent study showed that one third of successful American entrepreneurs were diagnosed with dyslexia.

This is not a coincidence. There is a direct connection between disability and success, because you are forced to overcompensate. Youíre six years old. You show up in school. Youíre dyslexic. What does it mean? Many fail. Prisons worldwide are filled with people who have an astonishingly high rate of learning disabilitiesópeople forced into an unsavoury alternative out of the mainstream.

But the small group that finds something powerful and useful in adversity does exceptionally well. So youíre in a learning institution and canít read or write. Youíre in one jam after next. What do you do? You learn to communicate, talk your way out of tight spots. You find out how to be a leader.

People who succeed adapt to adversity. Itís not about what went smoothly. Itís about the adversity you overcame. The third is the idea of experimentation. The theme that runs through successful people is a need to experiment, to try one thing after another, to iterate, to fail and start over again.

Take the hugely successful band of the 60s and 70s, Fleetwood Mac, who produced four US top ten singles. Their 1977 Rumours album stayed at No 1 on the American albums charts for 31 weeks, selling 40 million copies, making it the eighth highest-selling album of all time.

They never stopped trying to figure out what music they wanted to play. They tried everything from progressive music to calypso. Much of the early stuff was bad. After ten years of experimenting they discovered the California sound for which they became famous.

The last thing is luck: how constant the presence of luck is in the lives of the successful and how good they tend to be at identifying and exploiting opportunities. Bill Gates was lucky. He found the only computer at the healthcare centre in Washington when he was 16.

Take the three crucial figures in the history of the Silicon Valley and the computer revolution: Bill Gates of Microsoft; Bill Joy, the most important computer programmer; and Steve Jobs of Apple. One of the simplest ways to link them is they are all born in the same yearó1955.

If you were born in í55, it means you were 21 years old in 1976, the year the personal computer was born. They came at age at precisely at the same moment as this new technology burst on the scene. Had they been born a little bit earlier they would have already been hired by IBM or a member of the old guard and never had chance to explore this new technology. If they had been born later, they would have been too young. They would have missed the first wave.

They were brilliant, creative, extraordinary peopleóbut incredibly lucky, in that they came along at precisely the right moment. We stress individual contributions and we forget that when you were born and what your family was like make a big difference.

T&T has joined Jamaica with the dubious distinction of having among the highest murder rates in a non-warring country. You are part-Jamaican. You study societies. Why do you think our Caribbean islands are so dogged by serious crime?

You have a confluence of two factors. One historical and the other a more recent one, of middle-class migration. Any culture that has a legacy of slavery has problems with social dysfunction. It is not a trivial thing to recover from that curse of slavery. Itís something that lingers for centuries, and takes an awfully long time to eradicate from a countryís make-up.

Combine that with the second factor. The West Indies has suffered the loss of a significant proportion of its middle-class population to migration. The people who have left are precisely those who give a countryís culture its foundation. My mother grew up in an educated middle-class family in Jamaica. She went as a scholarship student to a boarding school on the north coast of Jamaica.   

When she had her 40-year reunion, she had it in Toronto, because all her classmates now live there and not in Jamaica. The kind of people who went to her school were the bedrock of a society, those who make a country prosperous and stable, set an example to others and help create institutions. They all packed up and left. That happened throughout the Caribbean. It takes time to replace those people. Hopefully some will return.

What do you say to your critics who accuse you of ďpop economics,Ē of oversimplifying problems, of wrapping up problems in tidy-sounding pseudo-scientific explanations?

I donít think of any of those things as criticisms at all. They are profound compliments. I am very grateful for them. My job, my role, always has been to serve as a bridge between the academic world and the rest of us. I am a translator and simplifier of complex ideas.

If you would like an idea to reach beyond a narrow group of experts it has to be simplified. There is no way around that. In the process of simplification some nuance and subtlety is lost. There is no way around that. To the charge that I have simplified ideas, I plead guilty, happily and joyfully, because they have reached many more people than they would have otherwise, and to my mind thatís an accomplishment.


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