Applying Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 Success Rules to Your Career!

Malcolm Gladwell is famous for his eye-opening five best sellers during the past decade. His most recent best seller, Outliers: The Story of Success, incorporates some important rules of success. Although he gives examples for each of the 10 rules of success throughout his five books, it is sometimes difficult to for those engaged in everyday activities to translate those rules into practices and into behaviors that will also make them successful in their endeavors following his prescriptions. In this blog I am translating Gladwell’s recommendations into everyday practices that can help you become successful in your career, life, and personal pursuits:

  1. Pursuing “Insane” Ideas: We all have ideas about how to make our lives better. The rub comes when we keep those ideas churning in our head without putting them into action. In David and Goliath Gladwell mentions the “insane” idea that Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad had about making furniture in Poland when furniture manufacturer in Sweden boycotted Ikea and he could no longer source his products even within his own country and was about to go out of business. In desperation Kamprad moves his operations from Sweden to Poland. The “insanity” of this move was that he makes this change in 1961, crossing the Iron Curtain, at the height of the Cold War. In today’s ethos Gladwell compares this move to Wal-Mart’s opening a store in North Korea. The only difference is that it is not a make-or-break deal for Wal-Mart now as it was then for Ikea. Gladwell notes that Kamprad became an extremely disagreeable person to make Ikea into a home furnishing juggernaut across the globe. As humans we are hardwired to seek and get approval of others around us, so becoming disagreeable requires going out of the way to sacrifice your daily dose of Serotonin, a chemical that makes you feel good with others’ approbation.What does this mean to work-a-day career professional? In a corporate setting you may need to pursue a more “social” approach to pursuing your strategy. If you have an idea that you believe in and want to try it out, learn how to influence and persuade others in your corporate ecosystem, so that they become your champion and help you promote your idea. It is not merely enough to keep fighting without developing a support system around you.
  2. Try a New Approach: Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In his book Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Companies to Fail, author Clayton Christensen discusses how those who have succeeded in the market keep pursuing the same recipe for future success because their success is based on the original recipe that worked for them. Those who try new approaches to upend the incumbent often succeed in their efforts because they figure out a new way to serve the same market with a radically different offering to disrupt the incumbent’s status quo. Many recent—and not so recent—failures such as Yahoo!, Kodak, and Polaroid are classic examples of this dilemma.What does this mean to a working career professional? If you want to make a breakthrough in your career find some new approach to develop an idea, package it, present it, and then give it the right visibility in the proper places to make your case. Do not be deterred by the fact that it is an idea that does not fit in the mold of existing paradigms. You must pursue it because it does not fit the mold of these paradigms and you must find ways to breakthrough the resistance to the unfamiliar to win your battles.
  3. Meaningful Work: Everyone knows the story of the Beatles when they had a major breakthrough in the mid 1960s. But their preparations started many years before that in Hamburg Germany in 1959. After landing in Hamburg the now-famous quartet played for all seven days of each week eight hour sets for eight straight years for practically a minimum wage. Thus before their big debut they had played 1200 times before breaking out as a special band. They threw their heart and soul into their music for all those years and it rewarded them in big ways after launching their career as a solo rock group.In our everyday work this observation translates into finding your calling and applying yourself to your craft in a single-minded way until you achieve a breakthrough. At the heart of this (and item #8, Patience) is personal mastery of anything you plan to pursue. Personal mastery takes dedication, hard work, and consistency. Only when a person is on their Path (of doing meaningful work) will they find it worthwhile to devote such time and effort to their craft. So, both your “calling” and applying your heart and soul to it are important in achieving personal mastery.
  4. Constant Revision: A famous example for not getting stuck on your original premise (and prejudice) and being open to revising your ideas is that of Albert Einstein, when he was in the process of formulating his General Theory of Relativity. Then Einstein believed that our universe was static and fixed. So, despite what his now famous equations were revealing mathematically he did not believe what they were telling him. So, he came up with a factor to plug into his equations to make the universe static. But, when he saw the evidence presented to him and some additional research and analysis first done by Father Georges Lemaître, an astronomer and physicist, and later presented by Edwin Hubble, Einstein recognized his mistake and revised his equations to reflect the new reality. The General Relativity now reflects the expanding universe and many other elements that were missed because of the wrong assumptions Einstein had originally made. This openness to new thinking revealed a whole new universe through his now revised theory!The same situation can happen to us in our everyday life and career. We make assumptions about things we want to pursue and when the assumptions turn out to be wrong we often continue to hold on to them and accommodate the new reality in line with those assumptions. The sooner you can accept the new reality and learn how to deal with it the sooner you can pivot in a new direction and find new avenues to forge ahead.
  5. Distinguish Yourself: For this item, Gladwell mentions his own approach to how he does research for his books. Instead of doing all his research on line using search engines he uses physical library to explore what is out there and to browse through the many shelves of books, periodicals, and other materials available at a large library, in addition. Library materials are organized differently from how an on-line search is structured and provides results from a search query. Using this thematic structure and cluster of ideas of how libraries organize materials that Gladwell finds his serendipity and his inspiration to write interesting material that excites his readers. He suggests that each of us can find a way to go off the beaten path to explore new meaning in how we pursue our goals.This approach can be applied to almost every pursuit in our professional life. So, instead of writing a résumé that lists your previous roles and tasks, write it in a way that also tells the reader your leadership story. Such an approach to your résumé can help you open new doors in how you want to move ahead with your career.
  6. Practice: Gladwell is not much on natural gifts that we all possess. Instead, he believes that applying oneself to their craft is what makes one rise above others. Although these gifts can be a boon to one’s career without diligent hard work making that gift your servant is what distinguishes you from your peer group. Gladwell gives the example of Derek Coleman, who was the most gifted of all basketball players. But, he failed to achieve his potential because he merely relied on his gifts to carry him without applying himself to his craft in practice and in hard work. He also got into bad habits and drugs as he saw his gifts fade away to nothing.We all have our gifts that we bring to our profession. Merely relying on those gifts to differentiate us from others can be shortsighted. Applying those gifts through hard work and diligent application of talent is what can make you a star performer.
  7. Explore: Gladwell chides his readers about being too married to their pursuits. He thinks that you lose perspective when you do not venture out and explore areas adjacent to what you engage in. In one of his talks he mentions running into a CEO of a medical device company and uncovering that the knee surgeries for humans cost 15X that for nearly identical ones for dogs. Anyone interested in cost containment of healthcare would be wise to explore why that is and do something about it. Also, many innovations and discoveries in a field often come from people outside that field. All of this is possible because they bring a new perspective to their existing view.In our everyday life and career it behooves us to explore outside our immediate area of interest. For example, a person steeped in the design of silicon chips can explore how that expertise can be extended to other areas of hardware design by looking into product design as a more general discipline and seeing what skills can be translated to a new product area without completely re-inventing yourself.
  8. Patience: This rule is an extension of Rule # 3, Meaningful Work. Gladwell insists that unless you devote 10,000 hours single-mindedly to your craft you cannot begin to master it. When you are engaged in work that brings meaning to you, you immerse yourself in it and can easily surpass this 10,000-hour floor.There was a famous Indian classical musician, Baba Allaudin Khan, who was a teacher to some of the most renowned Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and many others. He was known to have played all musical instruments of his day. His disciples themselves went on to become world famous in their own right. Indian music is based on ragas, which are precise melodic forms that create a specific mood in the listener’s mind. Each raga is an array of melodic structures with musical motifs, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to “color the mind” and affect the emotions of the audience. There are a total of 25,000 possible ragas. A single raga can take years to practice and master all its intricacies on its own. Baba Alludin Khan used to insist that unless you can create 500 compositions for each raga you cannot master that raga! Now you can see what it takes to truly master Indian classical music and why it is so rare to encounter a true master of such an art! A great Indian classical musician can render any one of hundreds of ragas on request. How does this translate into our ability for personal mastery? To develop your own brand in your career you must take on one pursuit, focus on it, and then continue to learn how to refine the art by staying with it until what you do excels all others in that field. This requires focus, dedication, and patience.
  1. Understand the rules of business: One of the renowned management gurus had a saying: The customer is not buying what you think you are selling to him. Although Peter Drucker said this nearly 50 years ago, it is even more true today than it was then. Merely knowing what your role in business is may not be enough to make that business successful. You must know what makes that business a success. So, merely developing a great product is not enough, one needs to create a great customer experience and provide a great value in delivering that product so that a customer realizes that value. So, the rules of business are not merely limited to your area of responsibility; they extend all the way to creating the right customer experience.What does this mean in your area of functional responsibility? If you uncover that your product works in the hands of your customer, but it does not meet their expectations of value and experience then you have not fully delivered what the customer expects and you have more work to do. So, if you go out of your way to uncover what the missing experience is from the customers’ perspective you have an opportunity to jump in and provide that experience to make it right. By doing so you will be going out of your way to make the customer happy and to redefine the scope of your job.
  2. Outwork others: To illustrate the importance of fighting to win Gladwell showcases an otherwise mediocre high school basketball team (and this was showcased on CBS’ 60 Minutes). This team lacked any talent to win because it did not have any skills to play “offensive” basketball to compete even at the local level. Their coach saw their limitations and instead of coaching them to win with an offensive play, he coached them to win by wearing out the opponent with a strong defensive strategy. Using full court press strategy this “mediocre” team went all the way to national championship by merely outworking its opposition and by running them ragged with their defensive strategy and coming out winners. So, the lesson here is if you cannot win with your skills, learn how to defend your turf with all your might and frustrate your opponent’s every move by overpowering them at every turn.The lesson here is that the underdogs must play aggressive defense to win. So, if you are running a start-up your resources often limit you. Big companies can outspend you, but they cannot outwork you. So, despite your limits you can outwork big companies and reach the finish line ahead of them!


To be successful in your endeavors requires much more than raw talent. It requires grit, which is a sum total of all these 10 factors, which are outlined above. Now that you know what it takes to succeed go ahead and surprise yourself!


Good luck!

Begin the journey to your new career today.