What can success in other fields tell us about politics?

First published in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a rebuttal of the traditional American emphasis on people’s success coming from individual merit.

It is the opposing case to the idea of the triumph of exceptional humans epitomised in the quote from Robert Winthorp, who urged people at the unveiling of a statute of Benjamin Franklin to, “look at the image of a man who rose from nothing, who owned nothing to parentage or patronage, who enjoyed no advantages of early education which are not open – a hundredfold open – to yourselves”.

Instead, Gladwell argues that although individual ability matters, it also requires three other crucial elements – hard work, opportunity and the right social legacy.

On the hard work front, Gladwell popularised an idea that had been knocking around for a little while, namely that across several different professions it seems to take around 10,000 hours of practice to make someone into a top-level performer. Whether it is in academic subjects, sports or arts, talent is required – but talent that doesn’t also managed 10,000 hours of learning does not make it to the level of genius. Referencing one study of musical successes, Gladwell says that, “the striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any ‘naturals’, musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time their peers did.”

The ability to put in those 10,000 hours often comes from lucky breaks – such as the unusual combination of circumstances that gave Bill Gates the opportunity to spend huge numbers of hours on a computer as a kid at a time when very few adults even were getting more than a few hours on computers. The Beatles too had a big break which allowed them to put in far more practice than many others; in their case it was the chain of events which gave them the opportunity to perform in Hamburg, where they were on stage for many hours at a time, day after day, condensing into a short period the sort of practice that most bands never get the chance to have.

Gladwell’s depiction of a 10,000 hours ‘rule’ caused a fair amount of controversy, including with the person whose research he cited. The BBC has a good round-up of all sides of the issue, although pretty much everyone on all sides of the debate agrees that huge number of hours of practice are required one way or another. And that isn’t something available to everyone.

Opportunities matter not only to put in the hours necessary but in all sorts of other ways – such as how being born at the right point in the year makes you bigger and faster than your peers in your year’s sports group and so often gives an edge in then making it to the top teams, the extra training camps and so on.

At times Gladwell rather overplays the sequence of events which gave someone that opportunity as if it was only the actual sequence of events which could have given them the opportunity, side-stepping the alternative view that ‘talent will out’, i.e. if it hadn’t been that sequence of events, another could have instead given an opportunity. Not all his examples are open to this criticism, though, including his striking point that 14 of the 75 richest people in history are Americans born within nine years of each other in the mid-nineteenth century. That strongly suggests there were some very special opportunities available to one generation which others did not have.

More contentious is Gladwell’s look at how people’s social inheritance also shapes their chances. At its simplest this is not too controversial, such as that people from families where academic study is the norm and encouraged are more likely to have a chance to use their academic potential to the full.

Where he gets into more controversial territory is when he looks at the impact of different cultures, suggesting that the hard work required to tend rice paddies compared with other forms of agriculture explains how South Asian cultures value hard work much more than others and so in turn explain the successes of South Asians at a range of activities including mathematics which most benefit from persistent hard work.

Taken together, this trio of points – hard work, opportunity and social inheritance – mean that those who end up being the outstanding performers, the outliers, are not simply the most talented or the brightest. Instead it is those for whom the trio work in their favour and are good enough to then be able to become stars. Others who might be brighter but don’t have the trio on their side do not become the stars.

What then are the lessons for political candidates? If you consider that becoming a Liberal Democrat MP makes you an outlier amongst party members, does Gladwell’s model fit?

In politics there is more of an opportunity for the lucky break to allow someone to become an MP, such as a Parliamentary by-election occurring on your doorstep at a time when the main opposition is hugely unpopular. Even so, Gladwell’s argument that it is not simply the best who prosper but those who also benefit from the right opportunities will resonate with many, knowing how the national situation and campaigns can make winning your own seat that much easier or harder.

It would be too glib to simply read the 10,000 hours point over to politics, yet there is a pattern that those who succeed often are those in a position to put in huge number of hours, not just directly into campaigning but also into wider learning of skills that help you become an MP.

There is a danger in the rightful rejection of the idea that the party should simply be a glorified leaflet delivery cult that the point about the huge amount of hard work usually required can also get thrown out. Obsessing on only delivering leaflets is wrong, but so too is the idea that if only we do fewer leaflets there is a magic route to political success for all that doesn’t require much work.

Instead it seems to me a better perspective to take is how can we make it easier for a much more diverse and larger group of people get the chances to try out putting in that amount of practice and learning. Federal conferences are one of the very few occasions when you can put in an intensive amount of training in a short period of time (whether in going to training courses or trying out skills, such as speaking at fringes). Perhaps we should try to have more of these sorts of intensive options, which then often become easier to fit in alongside other commitments? Perhaps we need more training that can be done remotely, Open University style?

Targeting Plus: how we can rebuild the Liberal Democrats

As a follow-up to last year's pamphlet on building a Liberal Democrat core vote, I've written a new pamphlet with fifty-three specific recommendations: How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats. more

Perhaps too, when it comes to opportunity there are lessons to learn. Many MPs have paid huge credit to their agent or campaign manager in getting them elected. Is having the right person in that role in your seat just a matter of chance? We certainly treat it as such when you consider how little training or advice is given to candidates on how to find the right agent or how to help them spot who a good agent is or to support the agent in themselves getting better at their role. The party’s efforts at diversity too concentrate overwhelmingly on candidates, rather than – for example – trying to boost diversity by looking to pair up good agents to then help get the candidates elected.

Those are simply some initial thoughts; what are yours?

If you want to find out more about Malcolm Gladwell’s ideas you can buy Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell here.

One response to “What can success in other fields tell us about politics?”

  1. My initial thoughts are that Gladwell’s examples work best when the profession involved is highly specialised. MPs tend to be generalists, and bring many “soft” skills that were developed elsewhere.

    Of course, many MPs are often excellent Campaigners too – perhaps Gladwell’s thesis works well here. The excellent campaigners I know have been involved for many years – perhaps from college or university, been to many byelections, and worked intensively during election periods in their own area.

    While there is a significant overlap between excellent campaigners and good MPs, I know several good MPs who are better at talent-spotting campaigners than campaigning themselves (perhaps more from other parties than the LibDems). Maybe I’ll be kicked out of the party for saying it, but there is room in the Parliamentary Party for the odd MP who is better at media interviews, parliamentary process and legislation than understanding EARS and being able to tinker with a RISO.

    I think that the training that the LibDems provide is excellent, once an individual has decided to access it. But, in common with many political parties and voluntary organsations, we must do more to attract motivated individuals, and make sure we utilise them when they come forward. One thing that never fails to make me bad tempered is when I see local parties turning away or not responding to offers of help.

    It would be lovely to turn all our candidates, members and helpers into geniuses. But I’m certain there are already supportive outliers out there who are simply not being used.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.