Malcolm Gladwell on Why People Succeed

In this excerpt, Malcolm is relaying Vic Braden’s observations about how the best tennis players in the world are unaware or have an inaccurate story in their mind about how they do what they do, such as hit a topspin forehand, and generalizes that to how many expert performers in other domains might be the last people to ask about how they accomplished a complex, difficult, or sophisticated goal.

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Gladwell does a great job of finding the gaps and raising the flag when he learns that something seems off base, like the notion of asking an expert to describe what he does. In this case, he’s pulled back the curtain on behavioral modeling and revealed the idea that it requires a different skillset to teach a great thing than to do it. That’s a great distinction, but it shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Think about it for a moment and you’ll see how obvious it is in this example: The best basketball coaches (e.g. Wooden) weren’t the best players, and the best players (e.g. Jordan) wouldn’t make the best coaches. Here are three additional insights you can get from the idea of behavioral modeling, based on my own research and application in business and in sports:

  1. Go to the source and observe. Like Braden did with using high speed video cameras to capture how top players hit high speed forehands, he went to find people who were already producing the result he wanted to understand. I contend that he missed his mark, though, because the people who produced the result he wanted were the coaches of the top pros, not the pros themselves (and those coaches might have done their work with the pros many years ago).
  2. Know what your goal is and ask good questions. You get a construct when you ask, “What should I do?” (advice). You get a recipe when you ask, “What did you do first in this particular situation? What next? And the next step after that?” Experts have made these steps largely unconscious and automatic, so it takes some skilled probing to deconstruct.
  3. Accomplishment is as much about state of mind as it is technique, if not more. When people ask, “How did [successful icon] do that?” what they are often really wondering is how they can follow in their footsteps and repeat the success. And while using proven models, techniques, and systems is foundational, improving one’s outlook, expectation for succeeding, and pride in accomplishment is the real X factor.