Gladwell: The secrets of success

Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell says we should look at rock 'n' roll for career guidance.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

'Tell me where your secret lies,' sang Fleetwood Mac on 1987's Mystified. If you've ever searched for the band's secret (we haven't either), you should have been watching Malcolm Gladwell at the London Business Forum on Tuesday.

The author of Blink and The Tipping Point chose Fleetwood Mac as the unlikely illustration of his main theme: that while stunning success may appear to come from ‘catching lightning in a bottle', there are actually quantifiable factors that cause it.

Success in Mac's case was the band's eponymous LP and its 1977 successor, Rumours, which brought them worldwide acclaim. Gladwell revealed something the average punter probably didn't know: Fleetwood Mac, the LP, was actually the band's twelfth, and the band had experimented with line-ups and styles for 10 years before they found their formula.

The rather obvious lesson: you've got to put the hours in if you want to be any good at anything. Gladwell cited the famous rule of ‘10,000 hours': that's how long you need to practise to become an expert. Look at Bill Gates, who as a teenager was one of the lucky few in the world with unlimited access to a computer allowing real-time programming.

Watching him expound his left-field theories, we wondered how Gladwell acquired his own expertise. His youthful wide eyes and huge tousled hair suggest he has spent at least 10,000 hours sitting on the floor of a college dorm, thinking outside the box and staring at the wall, while the run-out groove of Rumours hummed and clicked in the background. Actually, he told us later, it was at the Washington Post.

Starting at 23, when ‘I didn't have a clue what I was doing', he spent 10 years learning research and reporting from the experts. If you're forced to compensate for something, he said, it makes you hungrier for success. Fleetwood Mac lost their founder and key talent Peter Green in 1970 - only three years after they formed - when he took too much acid and started wearing robes. Instead of splitting, the band regrouped. Seven years later they released their masterpiece.

Gladwell then highlighted dyslexic entrepreneurs, saying that the likes of Richard Branson didn't thrive despite the affliction, but because of it. ‘As kids, dyslexics have to make up for it in other ways: they become good networkers, getting people to help with their homework, and leaders - 80% of dyslexic entrepreneurs were captains of high-school teams.'

So, unremarkable lesson number two: it helps if you're not too pampered. Or as Gladwell put it: ‘If my dad had been a billionaire, I wouldn't be here now. I'd be on a beach somewhere, with a thing full of cocaine.'

Third up: experiment. Fleetwood Mac started as a blues band, went through a hippy phase, then turned to full-on rock before finding their sound. Cezanne, says Gladwell, was similar, ‘if you'll forgive the obscenity of the comparison'. The artist spent years of trial and error before finally hitting his stride in his fifties.

Finally, you need support. Warner Bros backed the Mac through their experiments. Such support is long gone these days, said Gladwell, and we're worse off for it. He cited AIG, a rock ‘brought down by a group of 400 traders, right here in London'. He asked the question: had those traders ever been given room to fail before? Did they have their 10,000 hours of experience? Did they have room to experiment? Gladwell suspects they didn't. He's convincing. Let's get Fleetwood Mac to run the City, then...


In today's bulletin:

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Gladwell: The secrets of success
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