Outliers - A Review


Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell - Little, Brown and Company 2008

You know you are doing well as a writer when you have readers who wait to buy whatever you publish next. I am one of those readers when it comes to books by Malcolm Gladwell. I love to discover the secret principles and patterns that underlie what we see in everyday life, and Gladwell is a master at revealing these.

Some of these secrets are just fun and interesting, like the revelation early in this book that most pro hockey players are born during just a few select months--or rather, the reason why they are. Yes, there really is a simple reason. It has to do with cut-off dates for joining a hockey league as a child, and the persisting effect this has. I'll leave it at that and hope you read the book.

Then there is the intriguing 10,000-hour rule. That's the amount of time it seems to take to master something. It helps explain why the Beatles were such good musicians at a young age (they worked long hours in the clubs of Germany). It also suggests that we might be in trouble if we never commit to a given avocation for any length of time.

Interesting research is presented throughout, but there is a message here as well, and it is hinted at in the subtitle; "The Story of Success." After you have read this book and the research in it, you'll never look at success in the same way. Gladwell busts the myth of the "self made man," and presents the evidence that shows business and professional success is as much a result of circumstance, family background, and random chance as it is from choices and character.

The many hard work rags-to-riches stories you think you know are revealed as half-truths at best. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates was (and is) obviously talented, but he also happened to live a short walk from a computer lab at a time when such labs were rare. He also happened to have parents wealthy enough to pay for the time he spent there, and happened by sheer chance to go to one of the very few high schools in the country that had a time-sharing computer in 1968. Those little facts, by the way, are just the start of the story of lucky breaks that leads to being the wealthiest man in the world.

Gladwell makes it clear that we do not succeed alone. Context is crucial, and the book details case after case of people succeeding despite any personal deficiencies because of where they were born, who they knew, and other factors not chosen. There is the sad story of the man with an IQ of 195--which might be the highest in the country--who works on a farm during the day and at night works on theories about the universe that will never be published because he has no credentials, limited social skills and few contacts. These are all true stories, by the way, and that genius is still working on the farm.

To some readers this may all sound discouraging, to say the least. We don't want to think that our our fates are decided by nothing more than circumstance. Fortunately, however, this is just part of the picture.

It could be true that most people end up where they are largely as a result of outside factors. I might still be working part-time in the post office if I didn't have brothers making money on the internet, or if I didn't happen to see an ad on television and buy a course on making and selling e-books online. On the other hand we can choose to put ourselves in circumstances that are more conducive to success, can't we? For example, we can choose to get to know the right people, and we can update our ways of thinking and of interacting with others. We can make these choices regardless of our cultural background or other factors beyond our control.

Gladwell does not cover these possibilities in Outliers, but the book is not intended to be motivational. It is an exploration of some of the many hidden truths about success, and as such, it makes for fascinating reading.

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