Friday, February 13, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm GladwellWell Malcolm Gladwell's done it again. Produced yet another book that not only changes the way you look at the world but does it in such an entertaining way that the book nearly reads like a novel or a screenplay and leaves you wanting more.

If you've read The Tipping Point or Blink then you'd probably expect another fantastic performance from the man who explained how epidemics occur and why some things spread like fire through society and some fizzle out before they've had a chance to even get a flame. You might wonder, as I did, whether a third book could be as good--I mean hadn't he used up all the genius juice on the first two?

I assure you this one is just as amazing. While tackling a completely different topic Outliers demonstrates again Gladwell's wonderful narrative style which innervates each case study he sites and convinces you that he must, make that MUST be right.

Andrew and I listened to the audiobook together in the evenings in four segments read by the author and the premise of the book is this: It is our tradition to think that success is based on merit. If someone has reached the top of their field whether it be in business, the arts, science or sports we attribute their achievements to extraordinary ability. They're smarter or more creative or they just had that "something" that led them to do amazing things. It's what we'd call the legend of the Self-Made Man.

Malcolm GladwellGladwell, however, says pretty convincingly that there's no such thing. The Self-Made Man is a myth and in fact success is quite formulaic. If you want to master your field--whatever field that may be--it requires 10,000 hours of disciplined labor and practice. Those who find success are able to acquire those 10,000 early on in their careers and at just the right moment in history for those 10,000 hours to be of use.

Sound hard to stomach? Well Gladwell lays down all sorts of case studies including the Beatles, Mozart, Bill Gates, professional hockey players, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 19th century tycoons and Manhattan attorneys to prove his point and I have to admit he's got me convinced.

While we may think that the most successful people were born with some genetic fluke of greatness that brought the planets into alignment Gladwell in fact says it's the other way around: that those who are the most successful were just smart enough and that the planets aligned for them. They were just lucky.

While this may sound disheartening because it's comforting to believe that one can, by sheer willpower, strength of character, hard work and ability achieve anything (how many times is the phrase "You've just got to believe in yourself" marketed to us?) I actually find his theories to be quite the opposite. I think they give hope to those seeking success because it means that those at the top of the ladder aren't there because they were the smartest or the brightest or the handsomest or the most perfect or the most talented and therefore the only ones who will reach the summit, they're there because fate went their way and they had prepared themselves enough and worked hard enough so that when the opportunities came they were ready.

If you're just smart enough, just talented enough and are willing to put in the work necessary to achieve those magic 10,000 hours of training you have a good shot at success.

However, while putting in the work is something people can control there are plenty of other things they can't. You can't control when you are born any more than you can control the place or the situation into which you were born. While Outliers downplays the effects of Nature on genius and success it effectively shows how profoundly Nurture controls our destinies.

For example, if Bill Gates hadn't been born within a certain five-year period into circumstances where he miraculously had access to a free time-share computer as early as in elementary school his interests would never have come to fruition. The story is truly amazing and it convinces you that it's not so much that Bill Gates is a one-in-a-billion persona but the circumstances that combined to produce Bill Gates are one-in-a-billion. Or fifty billion if you prefer.

It sure makes you think differently about how the world works.

After listening to Gladwell's thoughts I've looked around at circumstances in my own life and seen the same principles at work. In Alaska, for example, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in the late 1960s and the Trans-Alaska Pipe Line jump-started the state. Before the 1970s Alasak was sparsely populated (though some would say it still is) and those who built up the state through that tremendous period of growth were all of a certain age and of a certain generation. If you caught the 1970s just right you were in a position to play a part in what was happening to Alaska.

Looking around town at all the major businesses you notice the trend in age--if you caught the wave just right it carried you to the top of your profession--a few years too late and you hit the economic downturn of the 80s, too early and there wasn't the money to finance the growth in the 60s.

Or even on a more personal level I look at our family's experience. My husband graduated from the University of North Dakota--hardly what you'd call Ivy League--and neither of us is what you'd call a genius. However, he was certainly smart enough to graduate from law school and was smart enough that he was able to get a clerkship after law school. Because of the clerkship he landed a good job with a law firm which in turn led to an even better corporate job that has been wonderful for him and our family. One thing has led to another until he's doing things that someone his age typically wouldn't have access to.

Not only is the whole concept of genius is completely overrated--so much of success is how fate plays out and working hard enough to be prepared for the opportunities when they come--it doesn't apply only to those at the uppermost part of the economic heavens, the principles Outliers describes can be seen all through society.

Interesting stuff. What's Gladwell going to think of next? You think he'd let me take him out to lunch for an interview? Maybe fate will fall my way.


The Motherhood is hosting a forum where you can share ideas for ways to connect with your kids in the kitchen. I've got a story up over there and commenters will be entered to win prizes so check it out!

Technorati tags: book reviews, Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers


Anonymous said...

I still haven't read him but I really want to.
I totally agree with this theory. That's why Dooce and Finslippy are huge and Toddled Dredge and Resident Alien (for example) aren't--timing and exposure. All are good writers, but the first two got in right at the beginning when blogging was new and got huge. So much is luck of the draw.

Chris said...

I saw him on The Hour (CBC) with George Strom. Very interesting guy.

JENNIFER said...

oh, how I love those books....when I saw you mention Outliers in your post yesterday I debated about mentioning the others...but clearly you knew...and are a believer :)

Very, very interesting stuff :)

Annette Lyon said...

I loved The Tipping Point. I'll have to look this one up too. But I already agree with much of it. In my own field, I see how much of success is blind luck--and it's aggravating! :)

(Is it just me, or does he look like Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons?)

Melissa said...

I'll admit that I had never heard of this author before, but now I will be cruising the library. Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

so, who won sesame street live?

i'm jealous it isnt in alaska more.

ewe are here said...

While I think hard work is a huge factor in 'big success' for a lot of people, I think luck has just as much to do with 'big success', if not more. Just the way life goes, far too often. I would take luck over hard work any day of the week... because it is so often that extra factor you need, even when you're willing to work hard.

I did enjoy The Tipping Point, though, so I might pick this up if I see it secondhand. said...

Scribbit--I don't know if it is possible in Blogger, but have you ever thought of adding one of those little "e-mail this" buttons to the bottom of each post? I ask because I read this book review and _knew_ that my mother would be interested in the book. I will send her the link, of course. But so many of your posts are e-mail worthy, what do you think?

Jenna Consolo said...

I've been hearing so much about this book. Thanks for the intriguing review. I must add it to THE LIST.

Scribbit said...

Anonymous--thanks for the suggestion. I went into my template to check because I had thought I had that feature enabled. I do have it enabled in Blogger but for some reason the stupid thing isn't showing up. I went into the actual template to check why but can't discover why Blogger isn't showing it. Oh how frustrating it all can be!

Scribbit said...

Oops--I meant to address that comment to Pmom. Not Anonymous--sorry!

jacjewelry said...

I haven't read it, but my husband did read all three - he liked it, but he didn't think it was as good as Blink. I keep asking him when jaC Jewelry is going to reach the tipping point. :)

M said...

Glad you posted this...I noticed on your gChat you had been at it for awhile and wondering what it was.

cndymkr / jean said...

I was distracted from this post by the mans hair. It's exactly what mine looks like today! Seriously.

OK, I went back and read it and wow, very interesting. A trip to Barnes and Noble is in my future. Thanks.

Babystepper said...

I'm ashamed to say I haven't heard of this author, but you piqued my curiosity. Which of his books would you recommend a newcomer to read first?

Chrissy Johnson said...

...but I love that there are exceptions to this "rule" :

Nicole said...

Criminy. Another book to add to my long, growing list. ;)

Kirby3131 said...

I have to admit that I couldn't make it through BLINK, but I have read the Tipping Point twice and am ready for a third round. I would love to read this next book. Thanks for letting us know he had a new one out!

This Eclectic Life said...

Sounds like an interesting read. I enjoyed Tipping Point. I believe that working hard (and talent) are sometimes over-rated. Both are necessary for success, but being in the right place at the right time (and prepared) is probably the key.

Thanks for the review...I'm headed to the library.

jubilee said...

Does he give any credence to the God factor? Or does he use the term fate as a generic all inclusive kind of thing?

In any case, it sounds like an interesting read.

Janine (@twincident) said...

Wow - I just heard he had another book and recently read Tipping Point. Love your contest page too! I linked to it on my blog...mostly so that I remember to list my giveaways there lol!

Organizing Mommy said...

I agree with the 10,000 hours of work toward something, but luck or fate is arbitrary in the life of a believer. God is Sovereign he can make things happen, even when all of the planets are not in alignment.

Oh, and I love his hair! Dude.