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

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The definition of success is a very subjective matter, and Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of Tipping Point, and Blink, posits a theory that success is not based on ambition or intelligence, but rather from culture, ethnicity and unexpected logic, among other things, in his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, out now in popular bookstores.

Written in a story per chapter format, Gladwell tries to convince us that “outliers,” or persons whose achievements fall way beyond normal expectations, should not be rated by traditional measures of performance such as academic intelligence, skill, or native ability. He does so by extrapolating and re-interpreting data using an unorthodox and inconsistent “out of the box” thinking paradigm. Thus, the argument goes that all of us regular folks should also be measured the same way. While this premise seems promising and in many ways true, it is also nothing new or groundbreaking.

The book starts out interestingly with a chapter on the “Roseto Mystery,” and documents how a community of Italian immigrants in the United States was able to maintain a high life expectancy rate despite their seemingly normal eating and living habits.

Gladwell states his point clearly in the first chapter, that “nobody comes from nothing” and that everyone who succeeds has an advantage, whether it be in terms of parentage, environment, or connections. This may be true for some individuals, but to take this as an absolute truth is an absurd proposition. Some theories remind me of the ideas in Michael Porter's business book Competitive Advantage of Nations, but they fail to make a sound argument worthy of discussion.

The ensuing chapters take on why the Beatles and Bill Gates were so successful in their careers, and why others as equally talented were not. How about the Rolling Stones or Frank Sinatra then?  Gladwell also talks about how much IQ do you really need, and why Asians are so good at math.  I'm Asian, and I'm really, really bad at math. The most disturbing and interesting chapter to me, entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” tackles the subject matter of why certain airlines have a high plane crash record while others don’t.

Gladwell uses a staggering amount of research and statistics, albeit disjointed, to prove his points, but in the end, falls short of trying to weave all his chapters together into one cohesive book.   In this sense, the material seems like trivia, which makes it a good read, though it is  really nothing to be taken too seriously, and if you are looking for some inspiration to succeed, this certainly falls out of your buying list. I’d still like to believe that success is a product of innovation, creativity, hard work and hard won wisdom. Buy at your discretion and with a grain of salt.

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About Clarence Yu

  • ex citi banker

    excess learning (or repetitive learning) is the key to amazing good performance.

  • Johnny Orange

    Few books contain ground breaking material. Most just present the information with a different twist as in Tipping Point most readers new the stories used but didn’t see the success based on a tipping point during the process. It was just a different way of looking at things and I believe most avid readers read for just that experience.

  • Hi ex-Citi banker,

    I agree that repetitive learning is a factor in success, but it’s not the only thing (especially if you believe in what the author is saying)

    Hi Johnny Orange,

    I agree that most people read for the experience of it, not necessarily focusing on what the author tries to convey, but moreso on HOW the author conveys it. In that sense, the reader is tickled by the experience. I read books whose topics I have no interest in all the time, just for the prose.

  • skyblue1

    Hi Clarence, I liked the book, actually. One of the messages that stood out for me is the “10,000 hrs” theory. I truly believe that to be able to excel at what we do, we need to practice, practice and practice some more. I also believe that parents who enable their children, who give them tools, and do everything possible to give their kids the best possible opportunity are key to their child’s bright future. Gladwell’s musings are definitely not a blanket rule because just like you, I’m Asian too and not very good at Math….I do agree with you that success is a product of hard work and those who keep at it are the ones that eventually succeed.

  • Skyblue, thanks for the comments. I wholeheartedly agree that constant practice is a factor is success or expertise. I’m somewhat ambivalent however with the notion that 10,000 hours is the prescribed amount of time needed. In the context of Mr. Gladwell’s examples, they certainly “fit” but in other real-life situations they do not.

    Again thank you for the comments.

  • Ramesh Krishnamurthy

    My main take on the book was actually that in most cases a person who identifies/chances upon his/her area of interest and if circumstances and interest permit him/her to put in that time they do well.

    I think the point about becoming absolutely a genius is not as important as the belief that if you are interested in something, that interest is not sufficient, you need to put in the effort (10000 hrs).
    Conversely, if you are not interested in something (even if it gives u a lot of money etc) you may still not be at the end of it all successful because u will not be able to get the mindset to put in the 10000 hrs.

    10000 hrs is just a number for me it is sustained effort for a long long time.

    If we can speak a language, write, perform even simple arithmetics, we have actually put in the 3 hour per day for 10 years, we call that going to school.

    My 2 cents 🙂


  • As an educator of gifted students, I found this book an interesting and enlightening read. This book should be included on every college’s freshman reading list. An awesome read for every student, educator, and professional!