Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Gladwell Effect

A virulent meme of the moment is 10,000 Hours – the idea, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, that brute force persistency is the route to greatness.

 In his best-selling book, Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success and acclaim. Looking at everyone from Robert Oppenheimer to Bill Gates, he concludes that success is largely predicated on having the stamina and determination to work at a task for a total of around 10,000 hours – what he calls the 10,000-Hour Rule.


One of his examples is The Beatles, who Gladwell points out spent much of their early days in a daze, in Hamburg, playing and playing and playing. Having read about their exploits in Germany, it’s actually amazing they even survived the experience, never mind rose to acclaim. But to say that the critical ingredient that led to their fame was being on stage together for months on end is, at best, misleading. There’s just so much more to account for.

For one thing, The Beatles adroitly (or fortuitously) surrounded themselves with great talent. To take an example, their producer on most of their recordings, George Martin, was enormously influential on their musical development, making the studio an instrument in itself and pushing the band to explore more complex sounds. Then there’s Brian Epstein, who took their raw talent and turned it into a mop-haired product for worldwide consumption. Oh, and in case we forget, Lennon and McCartney wrote some pretty good tunes, a talent that transcends anything they might have picked-up at the Ratskeller.

Perseverance is undoubtedly a characteristic of greatness. So is its near-neighbor, obsession. I’d actually argue that the real driver here is passion, an ardor for what you do. But this is never enough and to argue otherwise is an oversimplification.

Gladwell can’t be entirely blamed – although some, like scientist Stephen Pinker, have claimed his whole argument is flawed. Gladwell’s idea is more nuanced, but the popular interpretation is a reduction to a direct cause-and-effect: If only we all tried harder, we’d be rock stars.

It’s a very human failing to try and account for all results by isolating a single variable. In marketing, we do this all the time – be it attempting to understand what led to a sale, why that video went viral, or what caused our competitor to beat us on a deal. It’s too easy to say it was all down to the salesman, or the clever script, or the fact we didn’t have that one specific feature in our product. Usual this reductive reasoning is all wrong.

In marketing, don’t expect simple answers. And don’t anticipate that repetition and persistence alone will drive success.

No comments: