Introduction Post: The Outlier Complex

For as long as I can remember I have pondered over a simple question: What separates the Good from the Great? Simple as it may be it is an inquiry that I have tossed over in my mind for the longest time. It is simply asked, but not easily answered. It is a perennially interesting question because there are endless answers everywhere you look, depending on who you ask and when you ask them, and it is something we will all keep returning to because it is just so fascinating. If success was easily explained and created by some simple algorithm that one could apply it wouldn’t capture our imagination. So, we keep our eyes and ears glued to the success stories we hear and hope we can decipher what it is exactly that makes an outlier…well, exactly that, an outlier.

A flashback to my much younger years, perhaps 5 or 6 years of age. I remember being in the car with my mom (in actual fact, my aunt, but she is mom to me). She was driving a Mazda 323 at the time (her “upgrades” haven’t really been significant upgrades), and driving we went past a very fancy Mercedes ( I can’t remember the model) that was being driven by a lady. I turned to her and asked, “Mama, why is she driving a nicer car than you?” (Keep in mind that this is a 5 or 6-year-old asking this question, so a lot that comes out of that mouth isn’t filtered to suite political correctness.) She didn’t think too much about it before answering, “Mntan’ nam (my child) they have nice jobs that pay well and they work very hard in those jobs.” She went on to say that if I worked hard at school and achieved excellent grades I myself would get a nice job and nice car someday. Being content with the answer she gave me at the time, I just told myself, “Cool, all I have to do is be an ‘A’ student and subsequently I will get a high paying job and be sorted in life.” So clearly from a tender age I was fascinated by the concept of “success” and those who fall into that small basket, as constructed by society. From that point on the wheels of my inquiry of success where set into motion.

The epitome of an outlier is definitely an entrepreneur, or more so, a successful entrepreneur (however one wishes to measure that). I came across the word “entrepreneur” for the first time in primary school, Grade 4 to be more specific. Entrepreneurship was a topic within the subject of E.M.S. (Economic and Management Sciences). To get a more practical sense of the new topic, the entire grade was invited to partake in an “Entrepreneurs’ Day” at school whereby we could make something at home and bring it to school to sell. All profits were kept by the student, the school just facilitated the whole thing. I wasn’t economically privileged so what I had to offer wasn’t spectacular as other kids, but I knew for a fact that I couldn’t miss out on this exciting experience. But I approached the whole thing different. We were told about a week before about this flea-market-style sale that we as Grade 4s would be having and we were encouraged to come up with something to sell soon, preferably something edible. Right there and then everyone decided for themselves what they were going to sell; the more privileged and less creative (dare I say) had their parents decide for them. I approached the game differently however. I knew my parents wouldn’t put in a lot of money in making something expensive for me to sell at school – added that there was a high probability of not selling everything (because of competition). So I had to work with the little I had: I figured I needed something that everyone wanted but was cheap to make, and obviously I could sell at a higher price so that I would make a profit.

I didn’t know what exactly I was doing (nor the name of it) but I then saw myself asking around, particularly students from other grades who would be buying from us what they would like to be sold – something they would like that wasn’t offered at the school tuckshop. The most popular response was popcorn. (Apparently, this is called market research as I would later learn.) I was happy and I worked on it. The great thing about popcorn is that its production costs are minimal: I bought seeds, flavouring and small plastic bags, and borrowed a popcorn maker. I stuffed every plastic bag with the homemade popcorn, gave it some flavouring and sealed it – the whole thing was a one-man operation.

On the Entrepreneurs’ Day I had two bags full of popcorn. There were tables around our school hall where we could display our merchandise and sell from there. Once again, I decided to do different. I had a friend who wasn’t selling anything for himself so I hired him to help me sell my stuff. Instead of being stationary behind a table and wait for people to buy, we went to the customers (students)! We walked around the hall selling to people, and we even went outside of the hall (I’m not sure if we were allowed to do that, but we did anyway). We saw ourselves selling on the play grounds and near the tuckshop, of course! The whole thing lasted an entire break, which was 40 minutes. We had sold all of our inventory. My pants were sunk down by the weight of all the coins. If I remember correctly, I may have been the only one to have sold all of their merchandise that day. The profit I made was ridiculous, the kind of profits that listed companies can only dream of. This wasn’t a competition of any sort, it was just a practical task we were invited to do to get a real understanding of the topic of entrepreneurship. I didn’t fully understand what I was doing: I could never explain what inventory, revenue, cost of sales, market research, net profit or any of that commerce lingo meant. All I knew was that it felt damn good to be different and make money big time from it. The entrepreneurial bug bit me right there and then.

My thinking has changed drastically since then, owing to the books I’ve read, the people I have had the pleasure to meet, and the experiences I have had. The entrepreneurial spirit is still in me, and so is the curiosity of success in general. There seems to be a consensus that the secret to success is that there is no secret. In this Information Age we live in everything we want to know is in the grasp of our fingertips in un-quantifiable numbers. We have seen success and have heard a great many stories that exemplify it.

Like most people I have lived under the logic that success depends entirely on one’s merit – we identify certain character traits that equate to success: ambition, creativity, hard work, resilience, charismatic leadership, and so on. As true as this may be there are a few ingredients that factor into this mashup called success that we tend to overlook. My suspicions were made more clearly in Malcolm Gladwell’s masterpiece book Outliers (2008). Outliers confirmed what many of us were already thinking: There must be more to success than just great character. And indeed, there is…

What do we mean by outlier? The dictionary definition is: something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body. We attach this word to whatever we feel is beyond ordinary. Once we have identified the so-called outlier the next step in unravelling the web of success is to ask ourselves, “What makes them different?” What sets apart McDonald’s from the rest in the fast food business? What sets Apple apart from the rest in consumer technology? The same goes with Picasso as a painter, Oprah Winfrey as a media personality, Lionel Messi in football, Lewis Hamilton in racing, Floyd Mayweather in boxing, Steven Spielberg in filmmaking; and moreover, the best-selling musicians, the top executives in an organisation, and dare I say, what set Donald Trump apart from those who ran against him? We may think we know the answers, which we do, but we need to scratch below the surface in order to understand the whole picture.

Outliers (2008), by a long shot, best explains the phenomena of success. I won’t give a book review, but at the moment it is my primary reference when it comes to identifying what exactly makes ‘outliers’ lie so far out of the ordinary. Gladwell argues that we have been looking at success wrong. He reveals that it is as much as about where we come from and what we do at a certain given time, rather than who we are – and that no one, not even a genius, ever makes it alone.

“We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. [The stories in Outliers are about] people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up” (2008: 67).  

What we gather from this passage is that success follows a predictable course. It is not the smartest who succeed, nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have the necessary abilities and state of mind to seize them. There we have it. Finally, an explanation for success that puts our lives into perspective and makes us all unique. But then I hear you say, “But if you practice enough, surely, regardless of your background you will succeed.” True…well, partially true.  Gladwell tells us about the 10 000-hours rule to mastery: where practice – purposefully with the intent of getting better – has to be done for a minimum of 10 000 hours in order to reach the level of expert. Yes, anyone can practice themselves into being an expert if they fully commit, but we have to once again scratch below the surface of every great achiever to find the truth. And the truth is there is always some sort of special opportunity for practice – one is given the opportunity to learn how to be an expert.

For as long as I can remember I have been curious and (sometimes) risk-taking. These are necessary entrepreneurial traits that only now I realise I would not have been able to have played around with if not for the opportunities in my life, such as the Entrepreneurs’ Day sale back in Grade 4. There have been other opportunities, small and great, but still, an opportunity is an opportunity – a moment in time where one gets to take action to produce a favourable outcome.

My obsession with what separates the good from the great has led me here – a small step to something bigger, I hope. What I aim to do is bring stories of remarkable people (outliers) doing remarkable things in their respective fields and hope to ascertain what it is that sets them apart. The intended outcome of the Outliers Outreach Project is to identify strategies that have worked for some and re-engineer and clarify them in order to bring to others (such as yourself who is reading this) and myself. My search for outliers and extrapolating their strategies serves the purpose to inform and empower. I mean, don’t we all feel inspired when we hear of others doing well? I sure do. If not, that’s not a good thing. We should all embrace our uniqueness that is trailed before us in our paths…as we are all Outliers.

Papama Nyati.

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