Outliers: The Story of Success

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Penguin Books

Published: 2008


Books Review:


Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is subtitled “the story of success.” It is a book that purports to explain why some people succeed far more than others. It suggests that a success like Bill Gates is more attributable to external factors than anything within the man. Even his birth date turns out to play a role of profound importance in the success of Bill Gates and Microsoft Corporation.

Outliers also tries to answer such diverse questions as what Gates has in common with the Beatles; why Asians have superior success at math; and the reason the world’s smartest man is one of the least accomplished. All of these things are viewed in terms of generation, family, culture, and class. Outliers — those persons of exceptional accomplishment — typically have lives that proceed from particular patterns.

Chapter 1 is an examination of similar towns in Italy with vastly disparate life expectancies and no apparent reason. Though the towns were only miles apart, the life expectancy in Roseto was surprisingly longer– longer, in fact, than any neighboring town in the region, making Roseto an outlier. The eventual explanation, namely, the prevalence of multigenerational families under a single roof with the attendant reduced stress of lifestyle, while not one of the book’s more shocking revelations, nevertheless serves as an example of an outlier and the sometimes hidden causes of their status.

Chapter 2 seeks to answer the curious question why athletes on elite Canadian teams were all born in the same few months of their birth year. In a system in which achievement is based on individual merit, one would assume the hardest work would translate to the best achievement. The fact this criterion on was wholly overmastered by timing of birth was studied and showed that hidden advantage, namely being older and stronger than persons born later in the year of eligibility brought continuous, cascading, even snowballing advantage, which ultimately produced Canada’s most elite players. If everyone born, in, say, 1981 was eligible to begin play only in a single year, then naturally the older boys, being larger and better coordinated, would dominate. Hockey player selection in Canada is shown to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, namely a situation where a false definition in the beginning invokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.

Chapter 3 is far and away the most interesting in the book. It sets forth the so-called 10,000 hour rule, and in its course, shows why Bill Gates and the Beatles succeeded for essentially the same reason. Gladwell begins by noting that musical geniuses such as Mozart, and chess grandmasters, both achieved their status after about 10 years. 10 years is roughly how long it takes to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice. 10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness. Both Bill Joy at the University of Michigan and Bill Gates at Seattle’s famous Lakeside school, two schools with some of the first computer terminals, had access to unlimited time-sharing computer time at essentially the beginning of the modern industry and before anyone else. Because both were absorbed and drawn into programming, spending countless hours in fascinated self-study, both achieved 10,000 hours of programming experience before hitting their level. Because hitting that level took place at exactly the time need for that level of computer expertise manifested in society, ability came together with need and unique uber programmers were born. The Beatles played seven days a week on extended stints in Hamburg Germany and estimated by the time they started their phenomenal climb to greatness in England that they had played for 10,000 hours. Subsequent studies of musicians in general in music school showed that elite, mid-level, and low-level musicians hewed very closely to the “genius is a function of hours put in and not personal gifts” school of thought: members of each group had similar amounts of total lifetime practice. This book makes a fascinating case that genius is a function of time and not giftedness, validating both Edison’s famous saw about 98% perspiration and Feynman’s claim that there is no such thing as intelligence, only interest.

The next chapter tells the tale of Bill Langen, whose IQ is one of the highest in recorded history. However, he was a spectacular failure in his personal life. Prof. Oppenheimer, on the other hand ascended to work on the Manhattan Project though in graduate school he had tried to poison his adviser. The difference is shown to result from an astonishing lack of charisma and a sense of what others are thinking in Langen, and an extreme personability in Oppenheimer, which is said to show that success is not a function of hard work or even genius but more of likability and the ability to empathize.

Chapter 5 tells the tale of attorney Joseph Flom, of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher and Flom. According to Gladwell, Flom did not succeed through hustle and ability but rather by virtue of his origins. Intelligence, personality and ambition were not enough, but had to be coupled with origins in a Jewish culture in which hard work and ingenuity were encouraged, and in fact a necessary part of life. This, along with having to scrabble in a firm cobbled together out of necessity because Jews were not hired by white-shoe law firms, gave the partners and unusual and timely expertise: Flom’s firm decided it had to take hostile takeover cases when no one else would, and that turned Flom and his partners into experts in a kind of legal practice just beginning to boom when they hit their stride.

Chapter 6 traces the influence on a person’s culture of origin and how it marks him more in the present day then may be generally appreciated. Psychological experiments proved that a so-called culture of honor, such as that found in the South, where people of necessity had nothing but their reputations, caused the products of such a culture to be much more aggressive in defending themselves, their reputations and honor.

Chapter 7 traces the influence of Korean culture and deference to superiors as significant facts in a high number of plane crashes in the national airlines. It was only when cultural phenomena such as the inability to contradict a superior were corrected by cultural retraining that Korean Air Lines began to achieve the same safety levels of the airlines of other countries. This chapter is interesting for its treatment of flight KAL 007 alone.

Chapter 8 will have strong interest for most Slashdot readers. There is an Asian saying that no one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year can fail to make his family rich. The hard, intricate work of operating a successful rice paddy, equal in complexity to an organic chemical synthesis almost, is shown to have produced an ability for precision and complexity which outstrips growers of other crops. The fact that Asian languages in many cases use shorter and more logical words for numbers confers a strong early advantage which, like the age advantage in the hockey player example, snowball significantly over time. Gladwell argues Asians are not innately more able at math, but culturally more amenable to it based on the felicity of a language which is to our language as the metric system of weights and measures is to the English.

The final chapters of the book show that inner-city kids placed in intensive study schools achieve as much as kids from rich suburbs. The reason is found to be cultural: the long hours in those schools take up evening hours which would be spent at home and also take up summer hours, which in the special schools are full of math instead of the less than well-directed extracurricular pursuits typically found in the lower-income family home.

On the whole this book is going to provoke some ire and certainly some head scratching. It is bound to bear out in the minds of many Prof. Richard Feynman’s assertion, which we may modify to say that giftedness and IQ are not inherent but conferred by accidents or benefits of culture, or at least via mechanisms that are not obvious. Even if such a conclusion sounds laughable to you, this book may change your thinking.

Source of Book Review: http://bookoutlines.pbworks.com/w/page/14422682/Outliers

Available with: Arun Sharma


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