Outliers – a review of the Malcolm Gladwell book

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.

7 thoughts on “Outliers – a review of the Malcolm Gladwell book

  • Outliers is really a great book. The problem is Gladwell leaves little room for critical thinking by interlacing his opinion and ideas throughout the book. I like to form my own thoughts based on research. But I think for the target this was a great book.

    I wish I’d been born at the right time and had 10k hours of practice at doing something. Maybe blogging will help my writing skills.

    http://www.paunchiness.com/i-finished-outliers-last-night/

  • I read Outliers over the course of a weekend and let its ideas percolate in between the usual interruptions of weekend errands and activities.

    I found it absolutely fascinating in its fresh approach to looking at success from an obtuse angle. We all DO like to think of ourselves as self-made and successful. But the fact is, that timing and circumstances DO impact the heights to which we may rise notably above our peers.

    I don’t think Gladwell is taking anything away from those of us who feel we have achieved success in our lives or careers. (And let it be noted that “success” is defined differently by every individual.) Rather, he is talking about the outliers. That is, how could a “normal fellow” like Bill Gates achieve industry domination while a “true genius” finds himself working as a carpenter in the Pacific northwest? It turns “expectation” on its head, so to speak. If anything, I think Gladwell provides the reader with the opportunity to look at his or her own personal history and determine what outside causes have impacted the path to success (or lack of) on an individual basis. I did so. And I found myself feeling ever more grateful, not only for my own efforts, but ALSO for those who have impacted my successes along the way.

    Knowing that it takes a good 10,000 hours to become truly exceptional at any given task also comes as a bit of a friendly relief! At the same time, it suggests that effort does indeed equal reward, particularly if you are outputting that effort in the right place, at the right time, surrounded by the right circumstances.

    This, for me, was a really great read. It was historical yet modern, biographical yet philosophical, and academic yet artful. What makes it fun for outliers — and “inliers” — is that it is intellectually entertaining without being intellectually out of reach.

    It reminded me of how interconnected we all really are and how what each of us does impacts those around us…even those who have yet to be born.

    Renee Lemley’s last blog post..My First(hand) “Twitter for Business” CASE STUDY

    • Renee,
      thanks so much for taking the time to respond! I will agree that the book was very interesting. Gladwell has a knack at storytelling, I’ve shared many of the anecdotes from the book with others.

      I don’t know what I expected from the book: perhaps more of a ‘self-help’ tome, which is why I felt a bit disillusioned. But that’s my own expectation, and not the book, that left that impression.

      Follow me on twitter: afhill262

  • I went in with no expectations. And I think I’m so jazzed about it because of the particular timing that had me reading it. (!)
    Had to make some really big decisions this month that hugely impact the path our family’s future will take. This book made me feel very comfortable in the “connectivity” of it all. Not that it affirms one choice is right over another…but that the choices we make are interlocked with where we’ve come from and the circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment when that choice has to be made.

    I don’t know. It just felt comforting to me at the moment.

    And, again, grateful.

    🙂

    Thanks for the tweet on twitter that brought me here. Enjoyed the exchange.

    Renee Lemley’s last blog post..My First(hand) “Twitter for Business” CASE STUDY

  • Wanted to share Seth Godin’s review…more closely aligned with yours than mine.
    🙂
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/12/10000-hours.html

    I don’t know enough about The Doors, which he mentioned, but I’m willing to say that the Beatles are a far better example of an “Outlier” as Gladwell is using it. And the BeeGees had 10,000 hours of being brothers, which surely impacted their music.
    As for Godin’s Miley Cyrus reference…while it may not have taken her 10,000 hours to reach such notoriety, she DID have an edge in breaking through, given her father’s influence. And no one can yet say how lasting her success will be, but I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that it won’t reach the decades of power the Beatles held. And thus, Miley Cyrus is not an Outlier as Gladwell describes it.

    Now, I suppose I must read The Dip. Been meaning to, of course. So many books, so little time.
    🙂
    -R

    • Hello again Renee, thanks for pointing out the Seth’s review.
      I haven’t read ‘the Dip’ either, so I suppose that’ll go on my list too. We need a virtual book club!

      The Miley Cyrus reference is an interesting one: I’d posit that it IS circumstance that lets all these young cross-overs succeed: actors becoming singers. They’re not necessarily the best singers, but they’re in the right place at the right time.

      Follow me on twitter: afhill262

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