Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Success—an Owner's Manual

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Thirty
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, and
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

While American schools invest deeper in standardized tests and “accountability,” regular citizens recognize that material success doesn’t come from consensus benchmarks. But where, then, does success originate? While no single answer encompasses every success story, Malcolm Gladwell and Charles Duhigg, if read together, suggest an intriguing pattern which intrepid apprentices could apply to their own self-improvement.

Gladwell, a longtime New Yorker veteran, gathers diverse diverse success (and failure!) stories and back-engineers their patterns to find what traits flourishing professionals share. From immigrant Jewish garment manufacturers to Korean rice farmers to the Beatles, Gladwell finds remarkable degrees of commonality. Readers may be surprised to discover what they share with Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, and Michael Jordan.

First, Gladwell demonstrates that innate talent and natural genius have little bearing on success. Many highly gifted prodigies languish in obscurity, because life doesn’t reward inwardness. Success tends instead to cluster around certain traits, many learned in childhood or bequeathed to us by culture, others acquired slowly through effort and struggle. Overnight successes don’t exist. Victory comes to those most prepared, whether by nurture or by determination.

Some success traits originate from individuals. Gladwell explains “The 10,000 Hour Rule,” meaning those who practice exhaustively, for long periods of time, become outstanding in their fields. Likewise, despite longstanding patterns of childhood education, those who emerge successful from their schooling generally resist institutional pressures, such as (gasp!) summer vacation. It’s possible for determined individuals to supervise their own progress.

But we’re all beholden to forces we cannot control. Certain traditional cultures, like those found in the Great Smoky Mountains, reward anger and vengefulness, while other cultures, like Asian rice-farming societies, favor patience and humility. Even something as seemingly insignificant as your birthday, Gladwell demonstrates, can have sweeping consequences for long-term success. Bucking the influences that surround us daily requires more than mere grit.

That’s where the New York Times’ Charles Duhigg comes in.

While Gladwell describes the external factors that foster success, Duhigg parses the intricate psychology. Humans rely on habitual actions to function. We couldn’t traverse daily life if we needed to contemplate every option. Habits finesse us past ordinary moments, letting us concentrate our brains on unexpected or unusual circumstances. But how can we change when habits prove injurious or counterproductive?

Emerging neuroscience helps us understand how habits form. Generally, they emerge from a sequence of desire and reward Duhigg calls the Habit Loop. But while this seems obvious, our Habit Loops rely on complex internal motivations often clouded by our conscious minds. The forces that drive us vanish behind the stories we tell about what forces ought to drive us. Identifying our habits requires unaccustomed levels of studious honesty.

Thus, science describes patterns that describe everybody equally; but our individual circumstances cause universal effects to manifest in unique ways. This means our habits aren’t deterministic. We can change seemingly hardened behaviors, if we’re willing to examine ourselves forthrightly. Understanding our cravings and influences lets us revise our choices. Understanding society’s influences lets us start revolutions.

Duhigg describes habits in areas we wouldn’t normally associate with neurology. Besides individual habits, organizational habits drive complex groups, like companies and governments, while societal habits percolate throughout culture, steering us in ways we cannot see, like fish through water. All these habit structures arise in similar ways (organizations may lack nervous systems, but leadership culture behaves similarly). And all these habits are liable to revision.

Like Gladwell, Duhigg is no high-minded aesthete, discussing scientific precepts in isolation. Both authors doggedly apply their sometimes-cryptic science to practical, lived problems. Reading Gladwell’s “Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” or Duhigg’s explanation of how discount stores manipulate our habits, may seem depressing in the near term. But both offer workable approaches to turning powerful forces toward our ultimate benefit.

Both Gladwell and Duhigg rely on difficult scholarly sources, and their bibliographies cite authors us peasants couldn’t possibly understand. But as seasoned journalists, they translate very difficult concepts into vernacular English, guiding generalist readers through thorny disciplines. Though they deal in principles already well-known to scientists and other advanced thinkers, they bring often-abstruse knowledge into common Anglo-American discourse.

I recommend reading these two books together. Though written and published separately, the overlap of their themes is remarkable. Gladwell describes what success looks like, not just in dollar signs, but in individual sacrifice and social impact. Duhigg provides concise, scientific steps for translating our longings into meaningful action. Taken together, these books describe real, viable plans for turning your life into a world-changing success.

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