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Book Review: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm not really sure how to categorize Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success.  Is it Sociology?  Psychology?  History?  Science?  Motivational? Whatever.  The bottom line is, it's terrific.  Engaging, interesting, fascinating, inspiring, so on and so on, etcetera, etcetera…

The Fair Elaine read this one a month or two ago and regaled me with many an anecdote from the book, so I quickly added it to my Library2Go Hold list.  In the meantime I tried to pare down my library backlog, mostly not succeeding thanks to Orson Scott Card and his infernal Ender books.  ;)  So when my Hold came through, I marched Outliers to the top of my reading list and easily finished it in the allotted time.

The premise of the book is that the beloved stories we tell ourselves about the Self-Made Man and his ilk are generally wrong.  That is, the Self-Made Man had help, even if he didn't know it or really even deserve it.

Gladwell starts off the book by revealing the secret to being a hockey star in Canada, and it's nearly all about when you're born.  Oh sure, you also have to be good at hockey, but if you're born at the right time, you're vastly more likely to get picked for extra coaching clinics, all-star teams, and generally accumulate the longer hours of practice required to become an elite player.  With the same physical skills but a birthday a few months earlier or later, you just might not get that extra boost.

You've probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule, in which mastery of a field or skill takes roughly that long.  If you think about the hockey players I mentioned, it's easy to see how those certain kids born at the right time could accrue those hours due to being chosen to get extra reps in, while other kids born at different times might scrape by with the minimum. 

The book is bursting with examples of seemingly random circumstances that lead to success, from birth month to birth year, to being discriminated against in the workforce and given cast-off work which suddenly became the moneymaker.  Of course, it's not random at all.  In fact, it's really quite predictable that in the case of birth years, those born in times of demographic decline will often have an advantage due to smaller class sizes and an easier time getting into university and getting hired after graduation.

The tougher things to predict are things like cultural legacies, and this is where the most fascinating part of the book dwelt for me.  The idea that cultural things like "power distance index (PDI)," which is a measure of a culture's respect for authority, can lead to something like MORE PLANE CRASHES is at once fascinating and heartrending.  As an American, the idea that a Korean co-pilot might not speak up and correct his captain in order to, you know, safeguard the lives of everyone on a passenger plane, is just downright strange.  But America is a low PDI country, so I'm going to correct obvious mistakes if there's more on the line than my pride (and sometimes if there's less).

And here, of course, the "Story of Success" shifts away from random advantages and into disadvantages which need to be overcome.  Legacies give and legacies take away, you might say.  I'm going to stop myself here and not give away anything else, because Gladwell's discussions of the various obstacles and catalysts of success are too good to spoil.

The book is really quite inspiring because it makes you want to think about what legacies you deal with, to try to enhance the ones that are working for you and to overcome those that work against you.  But mostly it makes you want to look more closely at the Self-Made Man and find out what factors combined in making him what he is.  Because it's never as simple as "he pulled himself up by his bootstraps."  It's much more interesting.

Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience.  But they don't.  They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy.  Their success is not exceptional or mysterious.  It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky---but all critical to making them who they are.  The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

Next up is Frank Close's Neutrino, an interesting if not gripping tale of the theory, discovery, and uses of the ultimate escape artists of particle physics.  It's a timely book, given that neutrinos have been making the news lately.

And now I'd like to sing the praises of my son the Pancake Eater, who has read more than half the number of books I've read this year.  He's even finished one that I started reading last year.  (BTW, I'm at the magic number of 10 for the year.  Let's hear it for round base-ten numbers!  Whereas my son is at 10 in base-6.  Let me know if you're geeky enough to understand this.  You know, there are 10 kinds of people in the world: Those who understand binary and those who don't.  I am such a nerd.)

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (1)
  1. You’re a great nerd Seth, and I mean that as the sincerest compliment. 10 out of 10 in any base.

  2. I was talking with my sister just yesterday about having listened to a podcast that mentioned this book–but I had forgotten the title. It is highly unlikely that I would re-listen to the podcast to find the name of the book so the timing on this review is perfect. Having read your (more detailed) review, I am absolutely certain that I will want to read this book–and I’ve added the title to my ongoing To-Be-Read list.

  3. Man, he’s ahead of me. I’m somewhere between 4 and 10 in base-five, I believe, though it’s a Ludlum book and should finish quickly. Hope you’re well!

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