James Dyson and Gladwell’s Outliers

Book Club — July 20, 2010

After traveling a bit too much in the past weeks, I’m back in Taiwan, well rested and super inspired to resume this weekly book club.

In the air, I read an interview with one of my heros, Sir James Dyson:


PHOTO: DEREK HUDSON / GETTY

Dyson is best known for his colorful bagless vacuum cleaners, which work on the principles of cyclonic separation. When asked about his most important lesson in life, he replied:

It can take a very long time to develop interesting products and get them right. But our society has an instant-gratification thing. We admire instant brilliance, effortless brilliance. I think quite the reverse. You should admire the person who perseveres and slogs through and gets there in the end.

I love this quote! Yes, it’s wisdom that – 50 years ago – would have been taken as common sense. But things are different now. Instant gratification is getting the better us. It’s seeping into our industries, destroying our economies, and wrecking havoc on our core values. So many of us succumb to the unfortunate idea that we live in a time where the rules of the past don’t apply. I, too, have been convinced that changes like the Internet mean real value can be created overnight. But I cannot accept this anymore. I do not believe in instant or effortless brilliance. Behind every lasting success is an immense amount of hard work, failures, and above all, a relentless desire to go forward, no matter what happens. It takes an enormous amount of time and courage to reach a “breakthrough”.

Dyson built 5,127 prototypes before he got his vacuum cleaner right. And then he was rejected by all the major manufacturers when he tried to license them his invention. Discouraged but not distraught, he decided to start his own company. That took him 15 years and nearly his entire savings. But he persevered. Today, he has the best selling vacuum cleaner (by revenue). One of the most popular brands in the market. And is one of the richest individuals in the UK.

Read the daily news and seldom will you hear the true story of success. You’ll find the overnight wonder. The company that came out of nowhere. The business person who made a billion dollars – entirely with their own hands. Worse than untrue, I believe propagating these myths does real damage to the values of our society. Convinced that this is reality, we become disillusioned by anything slower than real-time. We take failure as a sign to change jobs instead of an opportunity to learn and grow. We loose our tenacity and ability to concentrate for extended periods of time on difficult problems. We choose to enter professions where trading is rewarded far more than building long-term value for society.

Thinking about all of this reminded me of a book I read a while back, entitled, “Outliers: The Story of Success“, by Malcolm Gladwell:

Outliers is Gladwell’s study of success. It’s a story told, in my opinion, the right way. From the Beatles to Bill Gates, New York Lawyers to Silicon Valley Billionaires, Gladwell argues that hard work and the right environment, is far more important that just plain intelligence and ambition in explaining success.

Central to the book’s theme is the following question: “Why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential?”. Gladwell lays out a convincing case for how successful people rise in our society. His book is fun and insightful. Definitely worth reading. Today, I just want to share one quote with you, since I believe it best captures Gladwell’s point, without spoiling the plot:

The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-yar-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.

We study the sciences to better understand our universe. We’re required to read the classics to experience humanity’s prowess. Why aren’t we taught the journeys of success to learn how to repeat them? Why don’t we elevate those, as Dyson so bluntly states, that “persevered and slogged” and got there? Why don’t we work to provide the environments that mold and shape outliers? Like Gladwell and Dyson, I believe our future depends on it.

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.


Winner: Martin Holec. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

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