Malcom Gladwell: Outliers

July 8, 2009

I just finished Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers.  It was an interesting read, but overall not up to the level of Blink. In his book, Gladwell expounds on his theory of explaining extraordinary success, aka people we think of as outliers.  He argues that instead of writing these people off as gifted, talented, or born with some type of innate ability, we can always find the roots of success in the unique opportunities and various inputs that shaped that person’s life.

He goes through a list of well known, successful “outliers”  such as Bill Gates, the Beetles, professional athletes, and other well known “geniuses”. In each case, he carefully dissects the unique aspects of the person’s life that enabled them reach their high level of success, be that when they were born, their cultural background, historical context, or special opportunities they received. He is basically saying that Bill Gates would not be Bill Gates, the genius, were it not for all these coincidental factors that had nothing to do with his own ability or IQ. To put things succinctly, he is tearing down the very American notion of the self-made man.  People become successful because of their background, their parents, the world around them, and the steady accumulation of advantages.  It turns out, you don’t actually need to be that smart or gifted at all. Note that Gladwell doesn’t ever play down the value of hard work and diligence, in fact he stresses it, but the point he’s trying to make is that most people don’t even get a chance to work hard. For example, even if you were really diligent and interested in computer science, you would not become Bill Gates unless your family put you in one of the only schools in the country/world with access to a computer terminal at that time. With no access or opportunity, all your hard work and diligence is essentially useless. You have no chance.

The problem to me is that this seems like a lesson that nobody ever disagreed with. In my experience, most people already understand and accept the basic premise of the book. Sure, we all say things like “he was born with it”, but deep down inside, we know to some extent that there are many other factors that contribute to success…parents, school, family income, connections, even what generation you were born in.  Similarly, the people who are successful in life almost never say that they did it “all on their own” or that they were just born better than everyone else. Even the people in the book that Gladwell interviews say that they were lucky or blessed in some way or another.  So, to me, the overall message of the book is fairly common knowledge, although the stories and examples were very interesting nonetheless. Other examples he delves into include why Asians are “naturally” good at math, why the top lawyers in New York were all Jewish, and the reason behind a brief stint when Korean Airlines’ pilots kept crashing their planes.

The book has undertones of a political & community call to action.  By saying that everyone has more or less the same ability to become successful if given the right mix of “ingredients”, Gladwell is essentially arguing that we, as a society, should be working to create more opportunities and not feed our obsession with constantly seeking out the best and the brightest.  Another understated point is that since success is more a factor of things outside ourselves, we should be a lot more humble if and when we do reach the top instead of taking the credit for ourselves (read: huge bonuses for CEO’s, etc).

I’ll highlight two quick points stood out to me: how he defines being an expert/superstar and his definition of meaningful/quality work

Gladwell points to many studies which show that in order to truly master a skill or subject, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours of concentrated, focused practice. This amounts to about 10 years (he talks about this 10k rule on this talk).

Secondly, to create meaninful and quality work you need three major components:

1. Autonomy: the ability to create your own direction and make your own decisions

2. Complexity: the work must engage your mind and creativity/imagination

3. A relationship between effort and reward.

Question to pondert: What factors and “steady accumulation of advantages” do you enjoy? How are you putting them to good use to ensure your future success?

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One Response to “Malcom Gladwell: Outliers”

  1. rooth Says:

    What’s the next book on your reading list?


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