6 Apr 2011

Outlier Artists

Posted by Moshe Mikanovsky

Outliers, Malcolm GladwellFew weeks ago I listen on my iPhone to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success”. This is a thought provoking account on what really make people extremely successful. Most of us think that if you have a specific talent and excel in that talent, eventually you must be successful, right? False. Gladwell shows throughout the book, giving many different examples, how protégées and geniuses with higher-than-average IQs are statistically not more successful than your next-door John Smith or Jane Doe. So what makes success? Two factors – opportunity and cultural background.


Gladwell explains and demonstrates these two factors for success. First, without the proper opportunity, one would not have what needs for extreme success. Using the 10,000 hours rule to gain experience in any profession to become “professional”, the book presents the real stories behind the stories – the stories of Bill Gates and other high tech mavericks detail the chain of extraordinary opportunities that fell in their laps and gave them the needed 10,000 hours experience to master their trade, putting them in the right place at the right time to reap the results we see today. Same goes true with such as the Beatles (who were given the opportunity to play countless hours at clubs in Germany before moving to stardom), hockey players (who statistically are born in January, February or March), and powerful and successful corporate lawyers in New York City.

Cultural Background

Then, the second factor is cultural background. Again, through many examples, Gladwell argues that cultural background can predict success of some groups, as well as failure. He tells the story of South Korea’s airline, who was the worst airline in security, having continues accidents, until the airline was forced into action, led partially by the government, and in which the realization was that the pilots cultural hierarchy and speech pattern caused many of the accidents. The airline turn around by training all pilots and co-pilots, changing their inherit culture with one that was more appropriate to keep people’s life safe. More examples shows clear patterns of cultural inheritance that contributed to individual and group successes, compared with less fortunate who did not receive the same background, and therefore could not succeed as much. These differences are not necessarily between ethnic groups, but social, and social-economical groups as well.

Outlier Artists in History

As usual, while I was reading Galdwell’s account, I couldn’t stop thinking how we, as artists, fit in. There isn’t a specific example in the book that relates to the arts in general, or visual art specifically. The first thing that comes to mind is some of the groups of master artists and art movements throughout history. For example, the great masters of the Renaissance in Italy, specifically in Florence, had both opportunity and cultural background. Professional Guilds defined the different artist job parameters, and rich patrons were seeking for, and paying, the best artists in the world. Young protégées were apprenticed with the best teachers, getting the opportunity to master their art form after many hours of hands-on work. Being in the approximate of great architects and building projects, as well as the political and religious patrons, made it easier to be exposed to all these opportunities. As for cultural background, revival of everything beautiful was everywhere, not just in the arts but in engineering, architecture, poetry and literature. After hundreds of years of religious control over imagery, artists were finally able to more liberally express themselves, as the world around them was growing and become more liberal.

Now, I am not an art history scholar or anything, and just drawing my example from some of the art history courses I took back-when. I am sure much deeper look can be taken into this theory.

Can we become Outlier Artists?

What I want to do is take it to the next step. What does it mean to us, the contemporary artists? Did we get the opportunities we needed in order to become successful? Are we of the “right” cultural background to be successful in our pursue of an art career?

I can only talk about my own personal experience. Each one of us can make their own analysis. The point is not to get discouraged if we didn’t get 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 21, nor if we were told by our parents again and again that “artists = poor” and “only dead artists succeed”. The point is to take control into our own hands and see what we can change if that is the case. Can we make our own opportunities? Can we practice more and more to achieve that level of mastery, even if it is later in life? Can we say “they were wrong! I can be successful as an artist, and there are many ways to do it…”?

I believe we can. Do you?



PS I highly recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success” (I listened to the audio version which is read by the author).

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