Friday, February 5, 2010

Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)

Malcolm Gladwell wrote Blink (which I read years ago and really enjoyed) and The Tipping Point, both of which are #1 bestsellers. They're these quirky nonfiction books that talk about strange phenomena that occur within societies and why they might not be so strange after all. Gladwell is a great writer—he's on staff at The New Yorker—and I've heard good things about his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, so I gave it a shot.


It is often the trend to look at successful people and chart their meteoric rise to fame in terms of their will and intelligence. If a person is smart enough and wants something badly, then nothing can stop them from succeeding, right? In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that there are many more factors involved in a person's level of success than just perseverance and a high IQ. Cultural background, economic situation, and even location play just as large a role in whether or not someone is going to make it big. Gladwell cites examples from all over the world to back up his idea that success has as much to do with luck and historical trends as it does any individual gifts.

The book starts randomly in a small town in Italy called Roseto. Gladwell tells a story about poor workers from the town who emigrated to the United States and founded their own Roseto among the rocky hillsides of Pennsylvania. This new Roseto was unique, however. For some reason, the people of Roseto, PA, were living longer than their neighbors, and dying basically of old age. There were virtually no cases of heart attack or any cardiac diseases, which, in the 1950s when this curious fact was discovered, were the number one cause of death for males. The people of Roseto weren't just seemingly immune to heart disease, though. Records showed that they suffered less from any disease when compared to national averages. Researchers came in to discover the source of the Rosetans good health, and ultimately determined that it had nothing to do with diet, exercise, or genetics, but with the general low-stress environment that the people of Roseto had established for themselves. They weren't getting sick because they were happy.

To Gladwell, the people of Roseto are the textbook definition of an outlier, "something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body, or a statistical observation that is markedly different from the others of the sample." He goes on in the book to point out other outliers, men like Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller with rags to riches success stories, who actually owe much of their rise to luck, history, and location. The same can be said for hockey players in Canada, the vast majority of whom are born early in the year. Gladwell explains that, the earlier in the year a child is born, the older–and most likely larger and more physically developed—the child will be when compared to other children on their youth hockey team. The possession of this "natural advantage" tends to single those older children out for promotion to better youth leagues. This self-fulfilling prophecy of giving better training to "more advanced" players who then progress even more and so get even better training continues up into the NHL, where there are many more players born in the months of January through March than October through December. Had the cutoff for the youth hockey league been in July rather than January, a different group of children would have had the advantage of being the oldest and most developed in their year. Gladwell uses this example as a basic way to show how talent and perseverance tend to be pushed out by luck and cultural factors beyond an individual's control, basically creating outliers from scratch.

Now, this isn't to say that hard work and intelligence count for nothing. Gladwell makes it very clear that, unless an individual has the requisite amount of experience to take advantage of the opportunities that he or she is presented with, it won't matter how perfectly the deck is stacked in that person's favor. A child born January 1st—the "best" day to be born if you want to be a hockey player in Canada—still needs to log plenty of hours practicing on the ice. Gladwell and others have noted that there is actually a magic number that relates to success in any field, not just hockey or business: 10,000. Much of Outliers is dedicated to the support of the "10,000-hour rule," which states that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice or experience in any field before a person can truly be called an expert. By the time most young athletes turn pro, they've logged easily 10,000 hours playing or practicing their sport. Bill Gates was lucky enough to have had access to computers from a very early age, and by the time he reached his twenties and had 10,000 hours of experience under his belt, he was ready to start working in the computer industry developing his own software.

Gladwell covers a lot of territory in Outliers, and charts many different people's paths to success. The strength of the book doesn't come from his facts or ideas, though. Gladwell has a very personal, conversational style, which makes it feel like he might be sitting there in the room, explaining things directly. He never claims to be successful or gifted himself, and in fact humbles himself by not knowing the answers to several of his own questions during a chapter on people with high IQs. The book contains a vast range of examples to support his arguments—from rice farmers in China to lawyers in New York to airline pilots in South Korea—and has a little something for everyone. Gladwell is persistent, but not annoying, intelligent without being snobby. I was expecting Outliers to be more like Blink, which blew my mind and made me see the whole world differently, but I was pleased in the end that it wasn't. Gladwell writes a strong book in a clear voice, and the end result is that I was thinking about how these factors apply to my life and my methods of achieving success.


Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell

I won't give Gladwell a rating on story, since it is a nonfiction/research book, but I will say that his storytelling ability is very well-developed. He's very good at delivering anecdotes and conveying clear messages.

This is exactly how research should be presented, in a conversational tone that easily gets across what the author is trying to say. There are no feverish arguments or lofty proposals, just an intelligent discussion based on factual evidence.

Great concept, easy to follow, quick to get through. My only problem is that I would have liked to have seen even more individual examples. There were plenty of societal and cultural examples that were interesting to see, but I wanted more people like Bill Gates, or even some artists or writers. Gladwell focuses primarily on the business world, and I'd love to find out if there is any correlation between these ideas and the creative/artistic world as well.


This is a great book for anyone who wants to do anything at all with their life. I really enjoyed it and hope I'll have the chance to take advantage of my own unique opportunities, similar to those Gladwell writes so well about. I highly recommend Outliers, even if you read it just as a personal reference point for where you are, where you'd like to be, and what you need to do to get yourself there. Keep reading, Genoshans!

1 comment:

  1. I dig the premises of the other books this author's put out. And, he has a knack for writing for the masses, which is probably why he's on the NYT Bestsellers list so often (what with mechanics like "Or are they?"--dun, dun, dun!). You would've certainly have heard of this guy if you listen to NPR at all.


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