The other day I picked up the Malcolm Gladwell book “Outliers“. I will admit, I wasn’t overwhelmed by his book “The Tipping Point” and never even bothered with “Blink”, but was intrigued about this book that claimed to be able to “transform the way we understand success.”
Gladwell is a good author: he understands that the secret to sticky ideas is to tell stories and anecdotes. The book starts off looking at the unusually high number of professional and semi-pro hockey players born in January, February and March. The fact piques your curiosity, and then the reason is explained rationally (and no, it’s not because they all received ice skates for their birthdays).
According to Gladwell, ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness. Taken as a statement on its own, we may be able to believe that given the right dedication, we can all achieve greatness. But so quickly as this empowering message is bestowed on the reader, it is whisked away. According to Gladwell, it is as much a combination of timing and circumstance as drive and dedication. Apparently there was an ideal time at which to be born to become a Silicon Valley billionaire or a successful Jewish lawyer in New York.
Don’t get me wrong; I love reading about interesting facts and seeing patterns in society and behavior. Yet this book rubbed me the wrong way for a few reasons.
On one hand, the idea that there are particular circumstances that can cause several people to achieve similar successes is really interesting. It is that idea that ideas cannot be “ahead of their time”, that the same concept can be developed at the same time by individuals with no knowledge of each other, just because the time is right. Yet I also wonder about the full picture: for every Silicon Valley tycoon born in 1954 or 1955, how many were born at other times? Patterns are only interesting when the full context is disclosed, otherwise, how can we know if they are truly patterns?
As well, why do you think I picked up the book? Because I consider myself successful. So to read a book that proposes that we are all products of our environment seems to somewhat trivialize all we have worked to accomplish. Yes, Gladwell does his best to state that by recognizing the impact of our upbringing we can overcome some of the weaknesses thereof, but rather than writing a book that would be empowering and uplifting, it almost seems to carry a message of justifications and excuses.