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Outliers: The Story Of Success Paperback – 29 June 2009
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Malcolm Gladwell is a cerebral and jaunty writer, with an unusual gift for making the complex seem simple, Observer
Makes geniuses look a bit less special, and the rest of us a bit more so, Time
Gladwell deploys a wealth of fascinating data and information to illustrate his thesis ... Outliers challenges accepted wisdom, FT
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Outliers: The Story of Success
Why are people successful? For centuries, humankind has grappled with this question, searching for the secret to accomplishing great things. In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an invigorating intellectual journey to show us what makes an extreme overachiever.
He reveals that we pay far too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where successful people are from: their culture, their family, and their generation. Gladwell examines how the careers of Bill Gates and the performance of world-class football players are alike; what top fighter pilots and The Beatles have in common; why so many top lawyers are Jewish; why Asians are good at maths; and why it is correct to say that the mathematician who solved Fermat's Theorem is not a genius.
Just as he did in Blink, Gladwell overturns many of our conventional notions and creates an entirely new model for seeing the world. Brilliant and entertaining, this is a landmark work that will simultaneously delight and illuminate.
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Negatives: it’s quite short (which is also good), and it’s a little loose and inconsistent with the level of statistical rigour under which the points are made (which also makes it much more accessible as an entertaining read rather than scholarly text).
And, as some reviewers are noting, perhaps unfairly, it it not a self-help book. This book will help people understand some of the key not so intuitive mechanics behind success or failure at a population level. It won’t necessarily give you a large list of actionable items as an individual, although I think parents in particular of young children will be very interested in the read. The most direct “takeaways” from the book are more for educational ministers and policy makers in terms of what they can do to improve the opportunities and outcomes for their populations.
Well done MG and I am so looking forward to my next book (Blink). Regards
Various elements of "success" are convincingly described and in relative balance without the pedantry or smugness sometimes found in similar discussions. The author recognizes that the role played by random events is as important as genetic inheritance, inherent social and cultural opportunities and efficient hard work, in determining outcomes. I liked the observation that to be successful you just have to be"smart enough" not necessarily a genius, but would guess that it would help. I also found the connection between language and the learning of arithmetic to be interesting.
Top international reviews
Despite being reported as being "inspiring" (it's literally on the front page), it's hard to see why. The book argues the point that success can be largely attributed to a person's circumstances. As most of these are out with anyone's control e.g. the time of year you are born, I struggle to see how anyone could be inspired. The best I can imagine is that someone will feel better that they were not the next success because of factors beyond their control.
The book tries to make its point by cherry picking studies and examples that will help prove his point. I found one response from authors of a study stating that they thought that Gladwell had misinterpreted and oversimplified their findings and I strongly suspect they were not alone. It presents a series of anecdotes and hypotheses as to why a trend was observed. My issue is that these hypotheses, that are all in keeping with the central theme of the book, are presented as if they were facts, when they are anything but. There is no attempt to give a balanced discussion, exploring arguments, studies or examples not in keeping with the oversimplified central point. Let's be clear, this method of starting with a point you want to make and then working backwards finding "evidence" to prove your view is journalism, not science. Gladwell can dress it up as much as he likes with statistics and citations, but don't be fooled, this is not how anyone with any scientific credentials works. Within a few pages I realised I was not reading a book by an expert in the field attempting to make their work accessible to the public, this was written by someone who could write a good story, but had little or no understanding of the scientific method. The book reads like an extended magazine article, perhaps not surprisingly as I was later to find out that the author is indeed a magazine writer.
You will not learn how to be successful by reading this book. You will not be better informed about what makes someone successful. At best this is a thought piece with a few discussion points worthy of a conversation at your next dinner party and others may enjoy the idea that they could have been as successful as The Beatles or as rich as Bill Gates if they had just been in the right place at the right time. Just a shame that it's not true. I didn't enjoy this book but more than that, I was incensed by it. This is journalism. A pseudoscience stretched out magazine article masquerading as an evidence based insight into success written by a modern day snake oil salesman who has bought into his own hype.
Things I liked:
- Interesting to read the stories of how various people came to success
- Well written
- Somewhat vindicating for those of us who already knew the dice were loaded
- How is this a revelation? I felt a bit like this was written for people who are themselves pretty advantaged. If come from a lowly background, with little money or good social connections etc, you KNOW that these things disadvantage you, and you KNOW that those who get ahead, do so because of these advantages.
- There was no follow through. I was expecting (and hoping for) a "but if you don't have these advantages, you can still do X, Y & Z". But there was nothing. So if you aren't advantaged, you end up feeling a bit flat at the end.
Summary: Worth a read
While I can see a different way of spinning the data provided to support Gladwell's argument, I didn't care. In a rare moment, I found myself not wanting to argue. : ) Instead, I found myself reflecting on things that have felt like lucky opportunities in my own life. This reflection was very humbling.
Moreover, I felt the text tugging at the need for greater equity. What could all the people with limited opportunities do if given greater opportunities? Think Darfur. How many people who might have come up with the cure for pancreatic cancer been forced to spend their time standing in lines waiting for clean water or food?
My own personal experience as a teacher of refugees reflects Gladwell's primary thesis. Many of my refugee students are pre-literate. They have not been given the opportunity to gain a formal education. As a result, there are many well-intended, but misinformed people who place these students in special education courses or deem their I.Q. low, diminishing their opportunities even more.
The students I teach are hungry for skills and spend hours outside of class practising. They make huge gains despite earlier opportunities denied them. While many will not go on to big colleges out of high school, I feel like given enough opportunity and time they could make it there. Sadly, many have families who depend on them to work to help financially support the family. (Yet, another limited opportunity to spend time focused on developing skills.)
In the past week, I have shared Gladwell's thesis with my students. We have applied the 10,000 hours to master a task to reading and writing. I remind students that if we don't get our 10,000 hours this year together, they must continue on their own. I remind them that it IS possible to move forward if they are focused and keep adding hours of work to their reading and writing. We even write on the board how many hours left before we are masters.
"2 hours down, only 9,998 left to go."
Friday, I had a student from Somalia smile and ask, "So it's not true that white people are smarter than black Africans? They just get more chances to read?" Imagine my pleasure when I could respond, "YES! That's correct. You are just as smart as any white kid in this school. It's just that some of them have been reading for years and you are just getting started."
Thank you for your work Gladwell, it is salient in today's political conversation surrounding education (especially for our most vulnerable students who have been given the fewest opportunities).
However, when you step back and think about it, despite the strength of the individual elements the book as a whole is probably not the game changer it sets out to be.
I just don't see what the hype about this book is about.
Let's go back to a specific example. For instance, Gladwell points out the role of culture in airliner crashes; if aircrew come from cultures that have stronger deference to social superiors, maybe a copilot would shy away from challenging a pilot who'd made a mistake. He works through examples of Korean Airlines crashes that seem to fit this paradigm, and Korea is high up the ranking of countries by deference-to-superiors, and we hear about how Korean Airlines challenged that culture and then had fewer crashes. That's a good story to read! Problem is that we never really tackle the fact that the deadliest airline crash in history involved aircrew from a country which was at the opposite end of the ranking-of-countries. No doubt individual deference to superiors was a factor in that crash too, but CRM alone is pretty boring, people enjoy reading the different-places-different-cultures stories.
I won't say it's all like this; I didn't get such a worry from the study of the backgrounds of lawyers in New York, for instance (maybe we'd see something different if somebody took on the Herculean task of expanding the study to different trades & different national backgrounds, but I don't think the main conclusion would shift much).
In any case, I definitely recommend it, it makes you at least consider if the way we "select" our elite is at all random; And if we are, in fact, predispositioning some individuals to rise over others by an injust selection process.
The chapter on plane crashes was my favourite discovery and the chapter on education and especially maths should provide all the proof we need that the education system needs to be changed.
Though I like this book enough to give it four stars, its focus is blurred at times. The title "Outliers" is misleading and not quite on point. The book is largely about luck: what it is, what it isn't, how it affects everyone and the part it has been playing quietly in the history of human success.
If you like reading books around business, self-improvement, science and psychology, this will give you food for thought and just sweep you along. Compact, readable, and insightful: 5 stars.