One of the names to come up in discussions about success and business in the last couple of years has been Malcolm Gladwell. His conception of successful people as not necessarily being those who achieve by some merit of their own, but because of the providential circumstances they serendipitously step into—or were born into. In his book “Outliers,” Gladwell posits several categorical conditions that allow for success—the most obvious perhaps being the 10,000 hour rule: if you do anything for 10,000 hours—or 20 hours a week for ten years—you will attain a “next level” of success.
Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker, wrote a short feature in the magazine back in January that covered success and the American entrepreneurial spirit. Ted Turner in particular receives Gladwell’s attention being that he has mythologized himself as the swashbuckling entrepreneurial spirit tossing all caution to the wind in an illustrious gold rush—all to win the big crown. Citing passages from Turner’s biography “Call me Ted,” Gladwell demonstrates that this “all chips in” image was more of a fictionalized version of himself than the truth since Turner played it safe every single time. For example: when Turner decided that he wanted to own a professional sports team and the owners of the perennially poorly performing Atlanta Braves began to pawn off the team, Turner tells of a showdown and having to come up with ten million dollars to buy the team, paying one million on the spot. Coming up with that first million dollars on the spot tested his fortitude that did not fail him. In reality, however, Turner didn’t even risk so much as several back hairs—he didn’t risk anything at all. He discovered a million dollars in the books that the owners had overlooked (the first million), then proceeded to convince the owners to accept the $600,000 a year he had already been paying them for four years at the time to receive the broadcasting rights to sixty games a year. In the end Turner came out on top with both the team and the broadcasting rights to all 162 Brave games a year.
These reassessments of the American dream are useful and truthful because they mirror our definitions of success, a value I believe Benjamin Franklin could have just as easily substituted for “happiness” when he contributed his famous clause to the constitution. Although I believe Gladwell’s deconstruction of the entrepreneurial is helpful in enabling us to evaluate American culture and machismo, it does not necessarily instruct us on sound business practices—or at least it doesn’t tell the full story of the Internet age. Mark Zuckerberg played it “safe” by doing what he was good at, but no one else had anticipated. Where every new day presents an unprecedented landscape, playing it safe business-wise means shaping those mountains and waters.