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Book Review - Outliers
December 02, 2008
I am an unabashed fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I enjoy his style of writing and admire his ability to not only dig up fascinating stories and statistics, but to weave them together into a cohesive whole. Blink and The Tipping Point were both excellent books that, even if not particularly deep, offered popular-level introductions into topics all of us experience but few of us think about. It is little wonder, really, that Gladwell’s books are perennial bestsellers. At the moment I write this review, all three of his titles are firmly fixed on the New York Times list of Bestsellers.
Gladwell’s third book, released just a couple of weeks ago, is Outliers: The Story of Success. Here he attempts to shed fresh light on success, asking why some people succeed while others never reach their potential. He takes the view that—our love of the “self made man” notwithstanding—success is rarely only a product of ability and motivation. Instead, he says, success comes to those who are “invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” In other words, we are all products of hidden forces, advantages and disadvantages, culture, upbringing and even plain dumb luck. He points to “practical intelligence,” (known also as “emotional intelligence”) as a force that often separates two people who otherwise may appear equal in every way. And, of course, there is the value of hard work—just as your mother told you, practice really does make perfect. Pardon my laziness as I quote from a story at the New York Times. “Many people, I think, have an instinctual understanding of this idea (even if Gladwell, in the interest of setting his thesis against conventional wisdom, doesn’t say so). That’s why parents spend so much time worrying about what school their child attends. They don’t really believe the child is so infused with greatness that he or she can overcome a bad school, or even an average one. And yet when they look back years later on their child’s success — or their own — they tend toward explanations that focus on the individual. Devastatingly, if cheerfully, Gladwell exposes the flaws in these success stories we tell ourselves.”
In all of Gladwell’s books, I’ve been drawn to the stories and trivia he relies on to illustrate his points. I enjoyed these elements in Outliers as much as in his previous two titles. However, where I felt that in the other books the illustrations served to further his point, here I often felt that they actually were his point. If you are like me, you will enjoy reading about the great advantage hockey players have if they are born on the first few months of the year and will enjoy finding out why Korean pilots are historically the worst in the world (especially if, as I do, you have Korean friends to share this information with). But you may also find yourself a little bit disappointed that Gladwell never really comes to any great and grand conclusions. Neither does he offer any substantial answers to many of the questions raised by the book. Then again, maybe that is precisely the point. Maybe this is not a self-help book, trying to release us from the simple fact that success is more than motivation and ability. Perhaps it simply teaches us what is inevitable, what is just one of life’s realities—that we are more than our desires and more than our innate talents and abilities. There is always more to a success story than what comes immediately to the eye, but these factors are not easily reproduced, even if we can understand them.
Outliers struck me as being a bit more derived from other books than his previous titles. I am not convinced that there is a whole lot here that hasn’t already been said by others (though I’ll grant that these others did not write books that sold in the millions of copies). I guess this just proves Gladwell’s point, though. It is not always the most original or most talented or most motivated who see success. This is illustrated well in the review of Outliers printed in the New York Times. Gladwell, like anyone who has tasted success, is the product of all kinds of forces and factors that have combined to make him what he is. “It is not the brightest who succeed…nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
I greatly enjoyed Outliers and have no trouble recommending it alongside Gladwell’s other titles. It is good for us, I think, to examine success and to understand that things are not always as they seem on the surface. By digging a little deeper than the myth of the self-made man, we are better equipped to understand the forces that, combined together, lead some people to great success while leaving others in obscurity.
Outliers is a good, light read. I can’t imagine that it will change too many lives, but neither does it need to. It is a fun and harmless diversion that offers enough “A-ha!” moments to be worth reading, but not so many that it is difficult to plow through. I think it makes for perfect holiday reading.