I’m about a third of the way through New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, an exhaustive analysis of why some people like Bill Gates or The Beatles became statistical anomalies in their success stories. If there is one theme that is consistent in the book, it’s that talent, intelligence and ambition only make up part of what it takes to reach an astronomical level of success. Gladwell argues that our environment plays an essential role, in that if you dig into the histories of most of the world’s outliers, you’d find that at some point in their lives some kind of barrier for entry was temporarily lowered for the person so he could then seize the opportunity and ride it to the top. For instance, he shows that there is an inordinate number of successful people who were born in the mid 1930s because the birthrates during that tiny blip on the time-line were historically low, and therefore there was much less competition between peers. Lower class sizes meant better teacher-to-student ratios in schools. A smaller workforce meant that high-paying employers had high demand for workers. Competition to get into most of America’s top universities was at an all-time low.
So therefore, Gladwell writes, when we are born and the families we are born into play just as much a role as our intelligence, ambition or talent. In fact he makes a good case that practice trumps talent and that intelligence, once it goes above an IQ of 130, doesn’t really help out much at all.
But now we have Web 2.0, the movement that is pretty much defined by its lack of barriers. Because of the ubiquity of the web and the lack of specialized tech skills needed to successfully utilize it, we are no longer beholden to the gatekeepers — or the massive amounts of money needed to become our own gatekeepers — in having to wait for them to lower the barriers. For some of us, not only is the barrier lowered, it no longer exists.
Take me as an anecdote. I got mediocre grades at a public high school — I think I graduated with a 3.4 — and then went on to go to a very mediocre college (when people ask me where I went to school, I tell them “Shippensburg University” and have to quickly follow with “it’s a medium sized state school near Harrisburg”) where I was a very average student, barely graduating with a 3.0. After school I struggled to find a job and landed a low-paying reporter position at a very small circulation weekly newspaper.
But if you dig further into my background and peel away a few layers, you’ll see that I was presented with a number of opportunities that, in retrospect, will allow me to basically control my own career trajectory. The first was the proliferation of ezines in the late 1990s, right when I was entering the upperclassman level of high school. The second was the wave of blogging that I jumped onto my freshman year of college.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since basically the sixth grade; I was a book worm and at some point I determined that I liked books so much that some day I wanted to write them. Eventually, I discovered online short fiction ezines, and began submitting short stories to them. When I was 16 or so, I received my first acceptance letter and was hooked. By the time I graduated high school I had written over 100,000 words of short fiction, enough to fill a large book. When I was 18 years old, I made my first paid sale to a short fiction publication, and from there I went on to write upwards of 100,000 words a year during the rest of my college career. Because there were so many places to submit, I was encouraged by the abundance of places to send my work, and by the time I graduated college I had made over 30 sales to magazines and anthologies, some of them even paying professional rates. Because of the opportunities to get published, I got hundreds upon hundreds of hours of practice writing.
But that’s just one part of the equation. It was also during my freshman year that I discovered blogging, and opened my first account on a platform called Blurty. I became addicted, just as the medium was gearing up to explode during the 2004 election. I immersed myself in the blogosphere, networking with dozens of other bloggers, friending them, commenting on them. And because of all the free time I had in college, I was able to spend hours a day reading blogs and getting to understand them. I was at a much greater advantage than someone who might have discovered the blogosphere at, say, age 40.
Flash forward to graduation and my entrance into the workforce. Yes I graduated from a mediocre college with mediocre grades and got a job at a mediocre paper, but it was during my nights and weekends that I was coming back to Bloggasm and making a name for myself. It started out with simple Q and As with influential bloggers and then eventually led to my breaking my first major story in late 2006, a post that got more than 100,000 views and was featured on many of the largest sites in a single month.
By the time that I took a job at a slightly larger, better paying newspaper a year later, I was writing full-length new-journalism style features on the blog. At some points I was even breaking major news, and because I knew the blogosphere backwards and forwards, I had also learned how to network properly and get my stuff linked regularly on major sites. It’s not just out of sheer luck that my writing has been linked on a high percentage of Technorati’s Top 100 blogs, or that I’ve made it onto the front page of sites like Digg nearly a dozen times; I knew how to pitch my stuff and get my content in front of the right people at the right time. Because of this I ended up appearing on TV news shows, radio shows, and I’ve been interviewed by reporters by several major newspapers.
Flash forward another year. Now I’m working for an online media strategies firm that has some of the biggest clients in the business. I’m also an associate editor for an outlet at PBS — a mainstream news source. Did I apply for either of these positions? No. I was approached by them because of my work on Bloggasm. Because of my reporting here, I no longer had to go out and look for work; instead the work came looking for me.
I am slowly, but surely, determining my own career trajectory because of my work online. Now that my articles are published at PBS, it’s easier for me to get interview subjects on the phone. And because my PBS articles are published online, I can still leverage my networking skills to get my writing in front of as many eyeballs as possible. For instance, my last three articles for PBS have been linked to by over 30 blogs each, many of those blogs being powerful A Listers that drove thousands upon thousands of readers to my articles. They didn’t get linked by these blogs out of sheer luck. They got placed there because I knew exactly how to pitch them and which bloggers were most likely to enjoy them.
Am I claiming that I’m an outlier? No, not exactly. What I am claiming is that I entered my teens and early 20s at a time when a major barrier was lowered, just waiting to usher me in. So while only time will tell whether I will continue upward in my career, at the very least I feel like I have the power to control its direction. It’s no longer a matter of racking up experience to include on my resume — which may then lead to future and better employment, eventually — now I feel as if I have the opportunity to enhance my resume in a way that I never could if I had simply gone through the daily dayjob meat processor. My success is based almost entirely on how much time I’m willing to put into it, and if the last two years are an indicator, I have a lot of late nights of blogging and writing ahead of me.