Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

November 19, 2010

Summary: In Outliers: The Story of Success, journalist Malcolm Gladwell contends that many success stories are not due to sheer talent or intelligence alone. Instead, there are usually a multitude of factors that come into play, resulting in a unique opportunity for a few people to rise to the top while those not fortunate enough to be in the same position fall to the wayside.

The first example Gladwell uses is the Canadian junior hockey system. On the surface, hockey appears to be a meritocracy, where those with true talent will succeed. After all, you can’t buy your way into the NHL, and no matter where you live somebody will notice you sooner or later if your skills warrant the attention.

But upon closer examination, Gladwell posits that the month in which a player was born has as much to do with his chances of success than mere talent. With the cutoff birth date for elite teams (where the groupings are according to age) usually being in October or November, Gladwell argues that someone born in January would be a much better hockey player than someone born in October of the same year because the January athlete will have had 10 more months of training, growth, and development. When talking about kids, 10 months is huge. The advantage continues when the January-born kid gets selected for an elite team at age 10 and gets better coaching, practice facilities, and equipment than the October-born kid, and the gap between the two players will continue to increase every year — all because of an arbitrarily imposed birthday cutoff.

Gladwell makes similar analyses regarding computer tycoons Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs; “robber barons” of the 1830’s, and Jewish lawyers in New York after the Great Depression. He then shifts gears to talk about how the culture and ethnicity of airline pilots contributes to crashes and accidents, and how IQ is not a good predictor of success. Moreover, Gladwell spends some time discussing how 10,000 hours of practice is some magic number that separates experts from amateurs in any discipline, be it learning an instrument, playing a sport, or working on a computer.

Through all of this, Gladwell does not attempt to define success in concrete terms. Instead, he simply focuses on the outliers in any given category and shows how something other than talent or hard work could account for their rise to the top.

Liked:

  • This was my first Gladwell book. I have to say that I think he is an excellent writer! The storytelling was brilliant, and there were long stretches where I simply couldn’t put the book down. I haven’t been this riveted by a nonfiction work in a long time!
  • Most of the examples Gladwell talked about were very interesting. I had never thought about the artificial cutoff dates for sports and schools before, but found myself agreeing with the author that older children — even if we’re talking about a few months — have an advantage. This is making me look at my son’s class of first-graders in an entirely different way!
  • The chapter about the pilots and all the crashes was kind of scary. I can’t believe that some pilots out there would treat running out of gas so nonchalantly in an effort not to upset air traffic controllers. Wow, that makes me want to fly solely with pushy American pilots from now on!

Disliked:

  • Gladwell’s critics assert that his explanation for outliers is overly simplistic. They say that because he’s looking for anomalies, he’s bound to find them or that he hasn’t examined a large enough data sample to make his results valid. I can kind of see their point here and would have liked Gladwell to address his methods in the book. Surely he could have predicted what kind of criticism the work might generate and proceed from there.
  • It would have been nice to get a few more examples of failures to contrast the success stories. Gladwell did talk about Chris Langan as someone who never quite made it despite having the highest recorded IQ, which was great. But how about others? How about that violinist who practiced for more than 10,000 but lacked any true musical talent so never made it? Surely there are plenty of those people around!

Favorite Quote: “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek” — Reportedly said by a young J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Rating:

Without getting into the merits or demerits of Gladwell’s arguments themselves (that would require far more research than I have time for), I have to say that Outliers was a very engrossing read for the most part. It lagged in a couple of places, but overall, I really enjoyed the book and give it 4 stars out of 5.

One Response to “Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. I really like your book review. This format gives me a good idea of what the book is about and I can make an easy decision about whether I should buy the book or not.

    I think some of the concepts in Outliers are intriguing, but I find myself doubting most of it. I think some of the arguments are a little too simplistic. But I do think you did a great book review.

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