The Gladwell Effect: Be Effective at Not Practicing For Maximum Success

Understanding the Gladwell Effect will make you think more effectively, improve your results and make you more successful.  It’s not about 10,000 hours, or Sneezers, or David and Goliath, but in a way it is.

We are all looking for the secret to be more productive, to do more in less time, and to create our great works.  My lack of sleep often kills my writing time. As most writers know, writing time is often the first thing to go when life gets in the way.

Still, I have been writing. It’s not always the best, but I am getting it done. I do it most often in some shape of duress.  I might be behind schedule on the day, or exceptionally tired. To get it done I search for a kick in the pants, not inspiration.

My “Go To” kick in the pants to get me writing often is a tough story from “War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.

Paraphrased, the story is that Tolstoy had 12 kids and wrote War and Peace. 12 kids in 19 century Russia and writing an epic piece of literature.  If he did that, I think I can write a few blog posts. I just have to figure out my way, because I am not Tolstoy, and I hope I never will be.

What does this have to do with Malcolm Gladwell and why is this called the Gladwell Effect?  I am getting there.

Last night I was inspired to write by the lack of sleep. Actually the television I watched during my insomniac attack.

Max was up at 1:30am. His thing is now lying on me with the TV on until he falls back asleep. We try not to let him watch TV, but as experienced parents have learned, you do what it takes. I wanted something at least a little uplifting and educational, so I chose The Address, a documentary by the wonderful Ken Burns about children memorizing the Gettysburg Address.

These children have severe learning disabilities and the school where they are learning “The Address” is a last resort for many similar young ones. Lincoln’s immortal speech is phenomenally but densely written. Memorizing it is a feat for all of the students. Then a teacher says something about the pupils.

“They have always been told what is wrong with them, but seldom give a chance to show what is right.”

It made me think of the Gladwell Effect.  It’s a theory I have based on the books and research of Malcolm Gladwell. His writings are some of my favorites, and I love his audiobooks. When Malcolm reads them, he brings another level of depth that escapes the written word.

In Outliers he talks about the 10,000 hour rule, probably the most widespread of his ideas.  In “Tipping Point” he discuss how phenomena start with specific people like “Mavens” and “Sneezers”. In Blink, Gladwell discusses how perception is skewed by experience but also physiology, and how we extrapolate answers.

The Gladwell Effect: An Applicable Theory of Effectiveness and Success through Maximizing, Not Practicing

In his latest book, Malcolm (I feel after spending a few weeks of listening time I have earned the right to his first name, extolls the hidden advantage of disadvantages).  David and Goliath references the tile story from Biblical mythology and how David had a distinct advantage in that fateful meeting.  The book also discusses other such stories, including how many successful people have lost a parent and/or suffer from dyslexia, like the students in The Address.  There are also research findings that being at the top of your class in a mid grade institution equates to more long term success than being average in the Ivy League.

When I read that book, I developed a theory. It’s what I call “The Gladwell Effect.” It might be obvious now that I called it that because I thought of it while reading Malcolm’s book. However, it is more about all of his books, and Gladwell himself.

We are all give both a certain set of skills, physical and mental, and put into certain circumstances. Sometimes it takes 10,000 hours of honing specific skills for the circumstances to meet success. Sometimes it does not. Take a look at Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy featured in “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

Sometimes, it takes “Mavens” and “Sneezers” for a phenomena to happen. Often, it takes time and persistence.

I’m sure there are “middle of the class” outliers from both schools that go on to achieve phenomenal success. Yet, it is often the rule.

There are many people that work very hard to be successful at this and that. Those that practice but never achieve. I dont believe it’s any one of the mentioned criteria that singles out expertise or success. I believe the true underlying criteria for all of these stories,the success of many of these phenomena, comes from what the subjects’ brains and bodies are doing when NOT practicing.

In fact, I believe Malcolm Gladwell is a portrayal of more than one of his own phenomena, and a bellwether of this “Gladwell Effect.”

Many people have tried to duplicate Gladwell’s success. Thought leadership was barely a term prior to him, but now you can find coaches, and classes, and online curriculum that will make you a “Thought Leader.”  The problem is so many of the wannabe Thought Leaders want to be just like Malcolm Gladwell, or Steve Jobs, or Seth Godin.

They are the equivalent of the 70th percentile at Harvard. They never achieve success.

It was touched on in David and Goliath. It’s not just the particular skills they don’t have that allows the dyslexic children from single parent homes to succeed, it’s the skills they do have that are augmented.

It seems to me, the people in the middle of the class, that were once leaders are thinking, “What is wrong with me?” when trying to get to the head of the class. Every time they fall behind and try to be more like the head of the class.

The “Successful Dyslexics” gave up thinking, “What is wrong with me?” and started thinking all of the time, “How am I going to use what I have RIGHT NOW to get what I want?”

You Will Never Write Like Malcolm Gladwell

You see, Gladwell has a unique background and varying, almost unduplicatable circumstances and skills.  To try to write like him would be a fool’s errand. He has taken and exploited every one of of those skills and circumstances to its utmost. To me it seems he always concentrates on what he has and improving it, not what he does not have.  The Gladwell Effect is almost a mental bricolage.

The head of the class (HOC), by the time they reach higher education, have each learned in a different way, studied different texts under different teachers while living with different families that provided the HOC a different genome. By the time all of these HOCs converge on a single school, only one is best suited for that particular situation.

The new HOC goes on working the same way and thriving. The rest dwindle, just like the authors that try to be Malcolm Gladwell.

In the end, I believe it’s not just the set of skills and the circumstances that make a Malcolm Gladwell succeed or a HOC thrive beyond school, its what happens when they are not practicing, not learning and not doing.

Being Highly Effective at Not Practicing

You see, even if you practice 10,000 hours there is plenty of time when you are not practicing. Our brains are still working on problems. It’s the problem we have our brains working on when not working that is the truest part of “The Gladwell Effect.”

For Gladwell, he takes what he has to research a problem. He has confidence he will come up with the answer, so the entire time he is not researching, the entire world around him is still being applied to that research.

The HOC that remains the HOC does not have to think about making it to the head of the class.  The HOC simply keeps improving upon what she is already doing.  The former HOCs are sitting at lunch, having a new internal dialogue that most likely includes the question, “What is wrong with me?”  That question then haunts them beyond school to a life of mediocrity.

The Successful Dyslexics have long ago answered the question “What is wrong with me?” and at every moment of every day look to apply the situation and the problem at hand to the questions, “What is right with me?”

Our brains are computers. We gloss over that, like computers, our brains have routines and subroutines. Those “A-ha” moments had by Gladwell come from the subroutines, just like the fortuitous events that lead to the success of the “Successful Dyslexics.”

I bet the HOC now MOC outliers not featured in David and Goliath asked the question, “What is right with the new HOC and how can I apply that to what is right with me?”

I bet part of Tolstoy’s success was constantly asking the question, “Can I write right now?” instead of thinking “How can I write with these damn kids?” He was always processing what he could take advantage of, not what was wrong. For me, I am not asking myself how I can be more like Tolstoy, but saying to myself, “If he can do it, I can do it.”

The Gladwell Effect in a few steps.

First remember that your brain is a computer with incredible, but limited capacity that is running all of the time.  The subroutines much when you are washing dishes, as when you are are working on your life’s work.

The Gladwell Effect is not about the 10,000 hours of practice, as much as taking advantage of your downtime. You brain is still working, still processing all of the time. You can be asking the question, “What is wrong with me?” or you can be asking “What is right with the situation and how can I maximize its potential?”

Pay attention to your internal dialogue when sitting around, when driving. What problem are you directing it towards?  “What’s wrong?” or “What’s right?”

The Gladwell Effect is about the maximization of subroutines in your brain, conscious and subconscious. Look to what you have, but spend time thinking how can you maximize it.  It’s what you think when you are not practicing, not doing, that really can make a huge difference.