A Matter of Being Exceptional

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June 18, 2009
Michael Schubach, CHTP, CHAE - mschubach@trumphotels.com

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© 2009 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Every so often, I surrender some magazine ink in praise of those authors whose books might be of interest to fellow technicians.  This issue, I’d like to pay a compliment to Malcolm Gladwell, whose most recent bestseller is "Outliers – The Story of Success" (2008, Little Brown and Company).  His book is thoughtful, insightful and filled with life lessons.

Outliers, as statisticians will tell you, are those nonnormal results that lie at the outer limits of statistical possibility.  Gladwell examines success stories–human outliers–from all walks of life in order to get (and to share) a better understanding of what creates success.  Surprising conclusions lurk on every page: if you think genius is the primary success indicator, think again.  Gladwell shares the story of Chris Langan, a man with an IQ higher than Einstein’s who never quite transcends the setbacks of an unforgiving youth.  If you think natural talent is the ticket, Gladwell tells you the story of the Beatles and the years of endless practice that preceded their meteoric rise to wealth and fame.  (Gladwell dubs this phenomenon his “10,000 Hour Rule” – those who demonstrate exceptional talent, including Mozart, the child prodigy, tend to do so after they’ve spent about 10,000 hours honing their craft.  That’s about 20 hours a week for a decade.) Not at all surprising is the degree of support and collaboration required for success.  “No one,” Gladwell observes, “not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses–ever makes it alone.”

What is surprising is the confluence of the uncontrollable accidents of birth that figure so heavily into the success quotient.  Consider some of Mr. Gladwell’s serendipitous evidence: 

• The vast majority of Canadian hockey players are born early in the year:  40 percent are born in the first calendar quarter, 30 percent in the second, 20 percent in the third, and 10 percent in the fourth.  The statistic holds true for the elite players from entry-level junior leagues through the professional ranks.  Why?  The early-born kids are the biggest, oldest, most practiced of their class at their first tryouts.

• Of history’s wealthiest people, from Alexander the Great through Bill Gates, a staggering 20 percent of them were from one country and were born within nine years of each other.  Not necessarily anointed by God but certainly blessed by circumstance were the captains of American industry near the close of the 19th Century.  You know, the J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller crowd.  Theirs was a location story–you had to be there. 

• Asian students excel at math, not because it fits the stereotype, but because of the intersection of language, culture and geography.  (Geography, in turn, drives agriculture, and Gladwell sees profound influences in the year-round rice-producing environment of Asia versus the seasonal growth and production schedules associated with Europe and North America.)

• The ethnicity of airline cockpit crews played heavily into plane crash statistics until foreign companies began employing American experts to help train their crews.  The training was not to teach aviation skills but rather to impart the finer points of a communication style at which Americans truly excel: pushiness.  In cultures that are imbued with principles of formality and respect for people in leadership positions, crew members found themselves deferring (for the final time) to a pilot who was heading straight for a mountainside.

• Class issues in American education are always controversial but there is, by the end of the elementary school years, a demonstrable gulf in the learning level attained by wealthy students as compared to poor ones.  After tons of metrics, studies have shown that there is little or no class gap in the learning abilities of children during the school year.  (Point of fact, the poorer child tends to learn more in class than his or her richer counterparts.)  The tremendous gap in learning levels occurs over summer vacations.  Children from wealthy families who have summer access to travel, band or computer camp, museums and home libraries come back to school in the fall significantly smarter than poor students.  The gap widens each summer until wealthy students show as much as a 50-point lead in their learning scores.  Bravo, American teachers, but now let’s rethink the schedule and the investment.  Would our country do better if no child were left behind when the bus pulls out for summer camp? 

It is at this point, I feel almost certain that the magazine’s editor has scribbled a margin note in my manuscript, something along the lines of, “Great article!  Just curious, though–will there be anything about technology in it?”  Insofar as technicians are mostly people, I can honestly reply maybe. So, what are those life lessons we can learn from Outliers?

First I learned that I was born in the wrong half of the year to be a Canadian hockey star.  Parenthetically, I was also born in the wrong country, I can’t skate, I don’t particularly care for the cold, and I’m not fond of participating in team sports.  Other than those minor drawbacks, I seem to be a Canadian hockey-playing natural.

No, wait.  What I really learned is that life is nothing but circumstances to be exploited, enjoyed, ignored or overcome.  The value of exploring success – particularly during times of great failure – is to be constantly reminded of the when-life-gives-you-lemons rule.  Sure, Mr. Gladwell’s facts and anecdotes remind us of all we cannot control, but they also remind us what we can turn into our own advantage.  Success isn’t reserved for January-born hockey wannabes.  Circumstances of birth are the luck of the draw but the opportunities that continually ebb and flow aren’t preordained for anyone.  My Gladwellian advice in times of tribulation and lemonade production:

• Get good or better at what you do.  Remember the 10,000-hour rule, and in times of adversity up the ante to 20,000.

• Manage your own work product.  Don’t wait for an annual review to tell you you’re doing a good job or you need to make improvements; you already know the truth of the matter.  If you know you’re good, let that be reward enough. (Besides, Americans are constitutionally entitled to pursue happiness, even when it is underserved.)  If you need to make changes, were you just waiting for your invitation to arrive?

• Expand and refine your personal and professional support network.  “No one–not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses–ever makes it alone.”   It’s just as true now as it was when I lifted it 10 paragraphs ago. 

• Nurture your inner pushy person: speak up and take action. There is a way to foresee adversity and communicate it without always being the only storm cloud in the sky.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t feel like it’s their place to come to work with ideas or suggestions for improvement, but are always well prepared with their shrewd,“I saw that coming a mile away” insights once a problem has occurred.

• Finally (and oddly), in this age of financial instability, remember that success isn’t about the money.  To quote Mr. Gladwell, “…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.  It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five.  It’s whether our work fulfills us.”

Success has infinite variations laced with infinite obstacles; if it were easy everyone would be successful.  Couple obstacles with accidents of birth and the winds of fortune, and success becomes a very rare commodity–rare, but attainable.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers certainly points out what you can’t control, but if the culturally deferential can learn pushiness and occidentals can learn math, then there’s hope for everyone.  If you’re smart enough to heed the forewarning, then you’re smart enough to be forearmed. Naturally, when the economy is circling the drain, the financial side of success has our undivided attention. But remember that there are other successes: the success of doing business well and honorably; the success of leading well, of allowing autonomy to flourish and protecting the connection between effort and reward.  Gladwell’s Outliers makes the point over and over again – success is there for the making. 

Now get out there and deviate from the norm.

Michael Schubach, CHTP, CHAE was almost, but for the circumstances of his birth, a professional hockey player from Toronto or some other Canadian place.  Instead he is chief information officer for the Trump Hotel Collection.  He can be e-mailed at mschubach@trumphotels.com.


Advice in times of tribulation and lemonade production

  • Get good or better at what you do.
  • Manage your own work product. 
  • Expand and refine your personal and professional support network.
  • Nurture your inner pushy person: speak up and take action.
  • In this age of financial instability, remember that success isn’t about the money.

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