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Book Review: Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

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Malcolm Gladwell is back, much to the delight of the legions of fans he won with The Tipping Point and Blink (not to mention a trove of articles for The New Yorker). In his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, the frizzy-haired cult hero shines his always-questioning light on extremely successful people and asks what makes them so. (An outlier is something or someone that is outside of the normal, expected range.)  But he's not looking at what they eat or how efficient they are or even how talented they are. Instead, he's looking from where they came.

Specifically, Gladwell makes the case that the rags-to-riches story is generally a myth, and that by looking closer at successful people you can see the advantages they received that others did not. The advantages may be when they were born, where they live, their ethnicity, and other factors. While it's easy to guess that someone born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth has a greater chance of success, Gladwell also offers examples where hatred and discrimination actually sowed the seeds for extreme success.

Gladwell's gift is in transforming obscure intellectual and psychological studies by combining and re-shaping and re-telling them in new, provocative ways. He suggests patterns or themes that others miss. Outliers is no exception, as Gladwell draws almost exclusively from the research of others, but puts that research together in ways that will keep the average reader hooked. 

Gladwell's first compelling example comes in the form of the top junior Canadian hockey players, who disproportionately are born in the early months of the year. Why? The age cutoff for hockey is January 1, so when players started out as small children, those born at the beginning of the year were almost a year older than those in their age brackets who were born at the end of the year. These older boys would be unfairly seen as bigger, better players, and would be groomed as champions, getting extra practice time and attention – not because they were necessarily the best, but because the quirk of the age cutoff had given them a built-in advantage from day one.

In this example and others cited in Outliers, Gladwell offers the 10,000-hour rule: to be an outlier, it usually takes 10,000 hours of practice at your craft. That practice may come because — to cite some examples — you are seen as special at a young age, it may come because you come from a culture of extreme hard work, or it may come because you were shut out of your first choice of career, sports.

(To explore the latter, Gladwell uses the example of corporate takeover attorney Joe Flom, forced to practice in his specialty when the bigger law firms wouldn't take him because he was Jewish. When hostile takeovers became common, Flom had his 10,000 hours in – the discriminatory firms who had seen this work as beneath them could not match his experience.)

To pique your interest, I'll tell you that Gladwell also takes on the success of the Beatles and Bill Gates, suggests why Asians are better at math, and perhaps indirectly takes on his own success when he tells his mother's unique story. He also looks more briefly at the factors that create failure, from cultural norms that cause plane crashes to family norms that keep geniuses unknown and unsuccessful.

In interviews, Gladwell has suggested that his work is meant to provoke discussion, and that it is not the last word on any subject. This is good, because you will undoubtedly try to poke holes in his theories. (I for one would like him to explain Oprah Winfrey's success – given her early life, the fact that she is African-American, and the fact that she is a woman, she overcame a triple whammy to get where she is.) I'd love to hang out with Gladwell for a couple of hours and try to trip him up.

Despite the objections that can be raised, Outliers is thoroughly compelling in the same vein as The Tipping Point and Blink. While Gladwell says this is not a self-help book, I dare you to read it without thinking about where you could've, should've, or still can spend your 10,000 hours.

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About Justin McHenry

  • The book is a guideline and proof of how success is reached. The theme guides Gladwell into motivating subject. He starts with the point that professional athletes are where they are at because of when their birthday falls in the year. The ones with birthdays at the beginning of the year have an advantage with size and therefore more practice times and better teams are given to them from the initiation. Gladwell believes that, “Success is the result of what sociologists like to call accumulative advantage” (30 Gladwell). With charts of the professional athletes birthdates, he proves his point.