Malcolm Gladwell's Theories of Success Explained in Examples of Public Figures

Categories: Malcolm Gladwell

You Have Arrived: Why We Don’t Have to Listen to Gladwell

Society is the greatest weapon of all. The social opinion or definition of a person or thing is either its greatest strength or its most detrimental weakness. The definition of the word success has evolved so frequently and so drastically that each variation of the word is starkly different from the next. It seems that in order to become successful, you must have society behind you. But before we delve into the ramifications of who or what is successful, it is important to ask, what do we mean by success anyway? Is it the fame, the social recognition, the wealth? Is it more so the personal feeling of “I made it”? Is it raw, rarefied talent? How can one word so broadly define many specific and conditional stories, and how far can we stretch it? When dealing with umbrella terms such as this, it is key to address the issue of defining this elusive word from several different perspectives.

Can we take people as different as Walt Disney, Serena Williams, Bill Gates, Michael Jackson, and decide that they all fall under the same category? In looking at different figures of the public eye, we can decipher what success is, who has it, and to what extent we can compare the different types.

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If we are to deepen our understanding on how the success is achieved, and what merits it, we can further the term’s evolution to involve more than just societal recognition.

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Perhaps we can discover that we all have innate success inside of us, and we just need to channel it. Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell certainly seems to believe so. In his many works on the topics of genius, talent, and success, Gladwell both asks and works to answer the age-old question of success itself.

I assume we should start at the very beginning, which, as Julie Andrews once told me, is a very good place to start. At age thirteen, Andrews became the youngest solo performer to ever be seen at the London Palladium, singing for the family of King George IV. At age nineteen, she made her debut on Broadway in the 1954 production The Boy Friend, followed by My Fair Lady, High Tor, Pipe Dream, and Cinderella, the gracing the film screen with Mary Poppins, The Americanization of Emily, and one of the most influential musical-films of all time, The Sound of Music. All that before the age of thirty (Andrews Online). Orson Welles wrote Citizen Kane at age twenty-five. Mozart composed Piano Concert No. 9 in E-Flat Major at age twenty-one (Late Bloomers). Television shows like “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” and “Child Genius” drive home the false point that youth have the most availability to success. It is hard to not feel inferior when eleven-year-old children on TV can solve equations faster and more accurately than an adult could. The number of celebrities who became famous after the age of fifty is high: Alan Rickman started acting at fifty-four, Jane Lynch at 40, and Kristen Wiig at 35 (Late Bloomers). “Genius,” Gladwell claims, “in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity – doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance of youth,” he writes in his 2008 New Yorker article entitled “Late Bloomers.” He uses the example of University of Chicago’s David Galenson, who uses examples like Picasso to relate precocity and genius, and Cezanne to quash those hypotheses.

Gladwell continues to say that it is actually the ones who fail that are above the rest. He relays Galenson, who says, “the imprecision of their goals means that they rarely feel they have succeeded […] they repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error.” This “experimental” creativity, Gladwell writes, means that the “prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same.” However, Gladwell does do his part in making the late bloomers superior. “Prodigies are easy,” he writes. “They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.”

So let us take a look at someone like Julie Andrews, who started her singing lessons at the age of five, when most of us are playing with blocks, and compare her to someone like 47-year-old Susan Boyle, star of game show Britain’s Got Talent, who blew away skeptical audiences with a rendition of Les Miserables’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” Can we say that Andrews is more successful than Boyle? This is doubtful; both women have extreme levels of talent. It just took one of them longer to get to where she is. Gladwell provides the perspective that though talent and early realization thereof is, of course, a quick and easy road to recognition, we should not strike down the failed artists who continuously work hard, perhaps failing to get our appreciation for many years. This trial and error only makes them better. Gladwell continues his perspective on hard work with his theory of the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule”, first published in his 2011 book Outliers. In 2013 he published a New Yorker article about the theory (“Complexity and the Ten Thousand Hour Rule”) in which he addresses the negative backlash he received by some critics. His theory, in short, is that with ten-thousand hours devoted to anything, one could become a master of it. He claims that psychologists found less of an emphasis on innate talent, writing that achievement is “talent plus preparation.” So, if his theory is true, it should apply to any person who is successful, right?

Kim Kardashian is perhaps the first household name to ever come from a sex tape. They say any publicity is good publicity, and the Kardashians are walking examples of exactly that. Kim is one of today’s most successful businesswomen, as she now has clothing and makeup lines, and even her own virtual game. Her sisters, half-sisters, and mother have all chimed in with their respective achievements, namely Kylie Jenner, whose “lip kits” sold out faster than most concerts (Goldman 34). Author Jacquelyn Goldman of the University of Michigan refers to the Kardashians as “docusoap celebrities”, attributing Kim’s success in the fashion industry to her “notoriety and affluence” from her reality television show (11). We can view the Kardashians as a success story, making good use of their infamousness and manipulating it into a business. But can we go so far as to apply Gladwell’s theories to Kim? She is the master of turning heads. What is the risk of saying that, perhaps, Kim has spent ten thousand hours on social media, and therefore is just as successful as the writers, painters, and musicians Gladwell references in his article?

The risk of this is, for lack of better terms, that Kim might just not deserve it. The risk is proving to others that you can attain a lavish lifestyle with virtually no talent, skills, or even much intelligence. Does that devalue what success means? Yale University author and psychologist RJ Sternberg does not think so. He writes that the most crucial key to success is adaptability. “An individual must learn how to adapt to the environment that he or she is in. Only then,” he claims, “is the individual able to decide which features of this environment to accept and which to reject” (1030). Can we define the Kardashians as “adaptable”? Absolutely. They chose which parts of their environment to accept – their positive feedback, encouragement, and attention from Millennials who love her shamelessness – and which parts to ignore – the negativity and the shaming, mostly from older generations who have different sets of values. And because they were adaptable enough to make a dollar out of fifteen cents (if fifteen cents can mean mild fame from the OJ Simpson trial and a low-quality sex tape released on purpose), we can agree that the Kardashians achieved success, or at least what they define as success.

How did we end up here? Can we really compare a Kardashian to an artist like Mozart? They exist of different eras, backgrounds, and lifestyles. This is the issue we run into when we talk about success – can we really say that one is superior to the other? We can agree on the fact that each “successful” person is a master of his or her own trade, environment, etc. Yet what Gladwell says is slightly contradictory to this notion. When he does talk about his ten-thousand-hour rule, he uses examples of violinists. The best violinists of the West Berlin Music Academy, he claims, were the ones who practiced the most intensely and the most frequently. An unnamed critic published in Time felt that Gladwell “popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was the ‘magic number of greatness’, regardless of a person’s natural aptitude” (Complexity and the Ten-Thousand Hour Rule). The rule he created involves specific people honing in on a pre-existing skill set, according to Business Insider Author Drake Baer. He claims that Gladwell’s theory is conditional “according to domain”, or field, and that practicing, according to a recent Princeton-released study, accounts for merely 12% of a difference in performances than lack thereof. Where Gladwell provides examples of the Beatles, who played all-night shows in Hamburg, Baer counters with examples of the Sex Pistols, who “took the world by storm even though Sid Vicious could barely play his bass” (2).

Gladwell’s ideas, it seems, are not applicable to an entire population, but rather, a selective subset of people who are either a) aware of their talent, or b) even have talent to begin with. Where does Kim Kardashian fit in his theory? What about Sid Vicious? Neither are particularly talented – both, though, honed in on an aspect of society that was in desperate need of a “leading figure”. For Kim, it is the young women, who follow an unapologetic, beautiful, headstrong woman, and for Sid Vicious, the conformity-bashing British punks of the late seventies. Gladwell seems to view success as synonymous with recognition, which society supports. But his theory of mastery does not apply to the many people who are “recognized” in society today.

But perhaps success is not about the recognition at all. For some, I presume it is: Kim Kardashian posts head-turning photos and tweets when the sea is getting too calm and she feels the need to shake things up. And the feedback she gets is her definition of success - the awe, the heads turning, the attention. Julie Andrews’ success must involve music and theater, which she certainly has a talent for. The social prosperity of the Kardashians – the millions of dollars, the houses, cars, clothes, makeup, and luxury – is what some people might think success is. Author JJ Arnett attributes this obsession with lavishness to the addiction of social media in his book Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach. Arnett introduces an entire generation of teenagers and young adults who think they are “not good enough” (37). This is because there is, in my opinion, simply too much emphasis on taking the easy way out. Hard work is not as valued as it used to be. It seems as though we are not living for our own approval. We are waiting for someone to tell us that yes, we are validated, we have arrived, we succeeded.

My parents consider themselves successful. Both went to college on financial aid, worked jobs from the age of fourteen, saved money, got married, bought a home, and had enough to send their children to good schools. They both work full-time, my mother as a nurse and my father as an actuary. This, they were told, is success: The American Dream-esque comfortable life. There was no Kim Kardashian when they were children. There was Julie Andrews. Success is constantly changing with the times. While we may not be able to equate the success of Picasso to that of a Kardashian, we can certainly say that they are successful in their own ways. Success will continue to evolve as new societal heroes come about. For the sake of those striving after the Kardashians, we can only hope there are enough Instagram likes to validate an entire generation.

Updated: Feb 17, 2024
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Malcolm Gladwell's Theories of Success Explained in Examples of Public Figures. (2024, Feb 17). Retrieved from

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