Outliers, 1 – Big-Shots

(Image credit – Pinnacle)

Perhaps ten years ago, I read a very thought-provoking book entitled Outliers, the Story of Success (2008), by Malcolm Cladwell.  The author presented examples across many domains demonstrating how important “outliers” are in virtually every area of natural and human history and experience.

An outlier is an anomaly, an oddball, a misfit, or, as per the Oxford Dictionary “[an] outlying part or member”. In context, an outlier is something or someone situated far from the center, something or someone remote from the norm. The outlier is not excluded from the set or subset of whichever category or group they are identified with, but they “differ” from almost everyone else by a high degree of non-conformity.

With a little reflection, it does not take long to understand that outliers can take many forms, both positive and negative. High achievers of whatever sort are almost always outliers, as are serious criminals on the negative side. Billionaires are, by definition, outliers on the scale of income and net worth, and very probably in business and management acumen. Most entrepreneurs may be talented and inventive, but their endeavours fold within the first few years. Thus they do not achieve the sort of outlier status we are speaking of.

Not so long ago, millionaires would have been placed in the financial outlier category, but given the ballooning worth of property values, stock portfolios, and inflationary pressures, most of our newly minted millionaires would better fit a “high-normal” status, at least here in the capitalist West.

Great villains and great heroes are doubtless outliers. Their courage or audacity exceeds almost everyone else’s and they do what seems impossible to the rest of us. Stars and superstars in the sports and entertainment world are usually outliers in native talent and certainly in achieving recognition of that talent. That being said, many of equal talent may not rise to the top because of factors out of their control, or by preference for a more quiet, stable, less public existence. I have known some incredibly gifted musicians who prefer anonymity.

We could expand almost endlessly on who would qualify as an outlier in any domain we can think of, but today we are considering the rich, famous, notorious, and glamorous.

To be considered a “success” does not necessarily require “outliership”. Many people are successful at what they do, and their success stems from their ability to meet expectations in most of the areas relevant to their chosen path. Outliers far exceed the normal sets of criteria for “success”.

One of the common factors for entering the celebrity outlier category is ambition. Another is determination, and yet another is persistence in the face of frustration and even failure. Edison’s lightbulb only succeeded after 1000 failures. Most great musicians only play flawlessly in their pinnacle performances after tens of thousands of hours of hard work and previous appearances in which they learned to overcome the jitters and faux-pas.

Besides a high degree of innate ability, and perhaps even genius, outliers usually have an aptitude to combine their primary gift with subsidiary abilities. At least a few of these seem to be necessary in rising to “great outlier” status. Wayne Gretzky is an outstanding example of the innate necessary talents plus the persistence required to become “the Great One” in Ice Hockey History. The same could be said of Maradona for football (soccer).  

Opportunity also plays a role in becoming élite in one’s chosen field. Many people of genius and outstanding talent never become well known. Their talents and abilities may well be in the outlier (exceptional) category, but the “breaks” and recognition never come their way, at least during their lifetime. Perhaps they lack some of the subsidiary abilities, or the ambition, that would raise them to the pinnacle. Vincent van Gogh is an example. His artistic genius was crippled by his personal problems during his lifetime. His work is now valued as almost priceless by great art aficionados.

While opportunity can be sought and created (as in a carefully orchestrated campaign), it may also fall across one’s path. “Great ones” are also opportunists who seize the moment to make a breakthrough into the next level. Some outliers arrive in the Himalayan air of extreme outliership seemingly by accident. They had not sought it, had not planned it, and did nothing to chase the recognition and acclaim, but were “discovered” and set upon high by their “fans”, their followers, their disciples, and finally by a broad recognition.

This sort of “fortuitously-born” outlier is much rarer than your “regular” (an oxymoron?) outlier who runs after a big name by exploiting their talent and ability and orchestrating a path to the top.

If someone deliberately sets their aim at achieving high-level outliership, they often recruit or attract helpers to open the way, set up opportunities, plan campaigns, and even create their own legend. Thus, publicity and propaganda can be important tools in becoming one the great outliers of history. Alexander the Great is one such from the ancient world.

There are hundreds of examples of this in today’s celebrity-worshipping culture where professional agents and promoters loom large. There are now many means and variations for getting yourself “out there” for people to know and admire you. This can even be done by adopting the “bad-boy/bad-girl” ploy to gain extra attention. The anti-hero image has become a major “thing” for entertainers, although not-so-much if you just want to live a regular life. A normal-life practitioner of anti-heroism is probably heading for prison.

Who are true Superstars of Outliership in history? Does the momentary éclat of a Rock Band or pulp-fiction author, or a movie starlet, etc., qualify? Who still knows who Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were, outside Hollywood old-time movie buffs? Who still recalls Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, or Janice Joplin outside devotees of old-time Rock’nRoll? Should we put John Grisham [apologies to Grisham fans; I read his books too] alongside Jane Austen in literary annals? And who can ever stand beside Homer, William Shakespeare, Rumi, or Dante Alighieri in the annals of world-class literature? Who can match Michelangelo in art?

While we can recognize the undoubted outliership of some historical rulers such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte, should they even be mentioned in the same breath as Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa, let alone Siddhartha Gautama or Jesus of Nazareth? (Napoleon didn’t think so!) Where do we fit the “great monsters” of history – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and, maybe now Putin? They are certainly outliers, but more like human Satan figures than anything else.

It really comes down to whom we choose to admit to the pantheon according to which criteria. Our personal choices of whom to admire and emulate go a very long way to betray our real values and worldviews rather than the ones we profess with our mouths.

Whom do we choose to a rank above we lesser mortals? Why have we elevated them on high? As Bob Dylan (a potential all-timer in folk-music history) once wrote and sang, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”. We are hard-wired to look beyond ourselves, to find a higher realm and greater reality than the mundane grind of daily existence. Even the Exalted Outliers discover this about themselves once they “arrive”. The old inner emptiness is unfulfilled. There must be more.

The ancients were more forthright about this business than we are now. They thought about the stories and legends of their great ancestors and heroes, then granted demi-godhood, or maybe even full godhood status if the “great one” was deemed worthy of it.

In contrast, we are downright disingenuous and double-minded about the whole business. Now social media catapults all sorts of aspirants to outliership into a comet-moment that grants them their Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame/infamy and acclaim/disdain. As with most meteors, their turn in the limelight burns out almost as soon as it appears. Even so, many are still desperate to grasp even this tiny sliver of immortality, only to discover how ephemeral and vain it all is. You got there, were noticed, wowed or appalled a bunch of people for a bit – then what? Your soul is still lost and you still don’t know who you really are.

If they survived into a more contemplative old age or phase of life after their rocket-ride to the top, almost all the Outlier Superstar cohort down through the ages have testified to coming to the end knowing the truth of what Saint Augustine once wrote, “Our hearts, O God, can find no rest till we find our rest in You.”

It is not wrong to be or become an Outlier. After all, “Someone has to do it.” We seem to need saints and great sinners to understand ourselves. Some people end up on the heights despite themselves because others insist on putting them there. The ancients used to call this “Destiny”. We seem to need outliers or, as Cladwell very ably illustrates, we’d still be living in caves and building monuments using thousands of slaves for decades.

Even as we go about the business of life choosing whether to pursue the kind of goals that may take us into celebrity outliership, we must never lose sight of the greater truth that that too is pointing us to what is much greater than ourselves.

Ultimately, what all of us are seeking is immortality, and that comes only from the Ultimate, Almighty Outlier.

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher and an ordained Christian minister in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for over 45 years and has 4 grown children and nine grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He is currently working on a number of writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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