Tom butler-bowdon

The reason I became a writer was because of a love of the self-help and motivational literature. For a few years I read little else, and knew it as well as anyone.

I later got into psychology, philosophy, business, economics and politics, but the one thing underlining it all was a curiosity about success. Among two similar people, what makes one person have a big positive impact on many people, while the other has a neutral or negative impact? What is it about a certain idea that makes it take off and become an institution? How does a fledgling company become a global brand?

These are not questions of psychology alone, or business studies, or sociology - they run across disciplines. What we're really talking about is a theory of success.

Koch80 20Principle-cover

There are thousands of success tips, hacks, and strategies (from The Art of War to Machiavelli to Anthony Robbins). What we've lacked are frameworks that seek to explain not just how to succeed personally, but how success happens regardless of time and place. And we haven't got to the bottom of questions like What is success? And why is it important?

Given the scarcity of genuine success theories, I feel grateful for books like Napoleon Hill's Law of Success (1928), Richard Koch's The 80/20 Principle (1997), and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success (2008).

Koch identified a universal "power law" that, if you looked, was evident in every area of life. It led to him making insights such as "we are awash with time" (because only a fraction of our time really matters), and "be lazy but intelligent" - you become remarkable not because of your hard work, but thanks to your epiphanies.


As for Gladwell: if you've read my book Never Too Late To Be Great, you might recall I include a whole chapter rebutting the ideas in Outliers.

I felt he went way too far in subscribing most success to environmental factors, and not enough to things like grit and personal epiphanies.

I prefer to take my lead from Hannah Arendt, whose idea of "natality" says that each life represents a new beginning, and people continually surprise others and themselves. Put another way, it's a philosophy of "rising to the occasion".


Samuel Smiles, author of "Self-Help" (1859)

I suspect there is a political dimension to all this.

Thinkers on the Left (from Rousseau to Marx to Chomsky) have traditionally seen the individual within his or her network of social relations. People are products of their milieu. Change a person's conditions, and you elevate their life.

The Right (from Samuel Smiles to Dr Phil) has traditionally emphasized personal responsibility. Despite one's circumstances, there is nearly always some space to improve one's lot through development of character and perseverance.

This view is not without blame either. There is no space for a slave to educate themselves, and its unlikely you'll enter a program of self-improvement if you're so poor that you're forced to wonder where your next meal is coming from.

My take: the Leftist view can lead to people absolving responsibility for their lives to government, and to believe in conspiracies about capitalists or some other bogeyman trying to keep people down.

And the Right's view can be a bit romantic or unrealistic about the ability of a small slice of society's ability to change, minus some external help.

I believe that most people have more space and scope to achieve their goals. There's a minority though for whom you need to first improve their basic environmental conditions - to give them a helping hand - before you can expect them to pursue matters of human potential.


Book Insights - Outliers

Outliers is the subject of our recent Book Insight.

You can listen to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube.

Book Insights are a reasonably objective and detailed look at the themes of books we cover.

In this one, we delve into Gladwell's idea that remarkable success is not just for geniuses, uniquely talented people, or the "outliers" of society. He looks at the stories of people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and many others, to debunk the idea of the "self-made" person.


Click to listen on Apple Podcasts

Book Lounge - Outliers

We've also started a new weekly chat episode - "Book Lounge" - where myself and Memo'd colleague Karin Richey discuss the Book of the Week.

Book Lounge is more informal and fun. As well as covering some of the ideas in the subject book, we give our own personal views and highlight any controversies or updates about the book or author.

Book Lounge is proving popular, so have a listen!

Apple Podcasts




I'll leave you with a quote from Outliers:

“It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”
― Malcolm Gladwell

Listen to the episodes and see if you agree or disagree with Malcolm!

Have a good weekend.

Kind regards,
Tom Butler-Bowdon


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