Customer Reviews: Outliers: The Story of Success
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on July 14, 2009
The main tenet of Outliers is that there is a logic behind why some people become successful, and it has more to do with legacy and opportunity than high IQ. In his latest book, New Yorker contributor Gladwell casts his inquisitive eye on those who have risen meteorically to the top of their fields, analyzing developmental patterns and searching for a common thread. The author asserts that there is no such thing as a self-made man, that "the true origins of high achievement" lie instead in the circumstances and influences of one's upbringing, combined with excellent timing. The Beatles had Hamburg in 1960-62; Bill Gates had access to an ASR-33 Teletype in 1968. Both put in thousands of hours-Gladwell posits that 10,000 is the magic number-on their craft at a young age, resulting in an above-average head start.

Gladwell makes sure to note that to begin with, these individuals possessed once-in-a-generation talent in their fields. He simply makes the point that both encountered the kind of "right place at the right time" opportunity that allowed them to capitalize on their talent, a delineation that often separates moderate from extraordinary success. This is also why Asians excel at mathematics-their culture demands it. If other countries schooled their children as rigorously, the author argues, scores would even out.

Gladwell also looks at "demographic luck," the effect of one's birth date. He demonstrates how being born in the decades of the 1830s or 1930s proved an enormous advantage for any future entrepreneur, as both saw economic booms and demographic troughs, meaning that class sizes were small, teachers were overqualified, universities were looking to enroll and companies were looking for employees.

In short, possibility comes "from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with." This theme appears throughout the varied anecdotes, but is it groundbreaking information? At times it seems an exercise in repackaged carpe diem, especially from a mind as attuned as Gladwell's. Nonetheless, the author's lively storytelling and infectious enthusiasm make it an engaging, perhaps even inspiring, read.

Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is another of my favorites in this genre. I recommend it strongly because, unlike Gladwell's book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 shows you how to become an outlier...
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In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to disabuse us of the notion that genius and greatness are predominantly a function of innate ability and IQ. He rightly notes that while IQ is certainly a contributor, it reaches a "point of diminishing returns" after a while: once people score about 130, IQ becomes less important and "intangibles" (my term) become more important.

The book, then, focuses on what these "intangibles" are. Gladwell suggests that things like what income level, culture, and time of a child's birth are important contributors to success, as well as a person's tenacity and agility. As the last of these is the least conventional, think of it this way: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many other computer masterminds would likely not have distinguiished themselves were they born 10 years earlier (as they would not have been exposed to computers in high-school/college, and would have been in their mid-thirties by the time computers really took hold, likely already in other careers by that point in their lives.)

How does culture matter? Think about the discrepancy between how many days per year American children spend in school (180) versus Asian students (280), and how many more social expectaitons Asian students are borne into? Certianly this will affect academic and other achievement.

Now, I should point out that Gladwell is quite adept at anecdotal story telling and is much less adept at statistical analysis. As such, he could be justly accused of overstating his case (and maybe even finding patterns where he wants to see them, rather than where they exist.) Gladwell is definitely writing for the popular market so anyone wanting good "back up" of his arguments may find themselves disappointed by his cherry-picking of examples.

That said, Gladwell's book contains some interesting and provocative ideas, especially for educators and those concerned with education. His last chapter - about the KIPP schools - is a fascinating plea for American schools to infuse more rigor (and quantity) to the educational school year. As a main part of Gladwell's thesis is that how hard one works (and is willing to work) is endemic to one's likelihood of success, we set students up for failure by not expecting them to work as hard as other countries expect of their students.

For a fun read which introduces some interesting ideas, Gladwell's "Outliers" is a decent book. Those who want a little more scholarly meat may come away disappointed.
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on February 12, 2009
Gladwell seems to have perfected a formula:
1. Latch onto a catchy concept.
2. Think of a great, catchy one- or two-word title.
3. Write a thin, small book.
4. Start your book with a decent analysis of some facts that support your catchy thesis, hook the reader, then let the book slide into a series of anecdotes and stories. Don't "prove" your thesis, just illustrate it.
5. Charge a lot for it (in both absolute dollars and cost-per-word).
6. Get a terrific, minimalist cover design.
7. Let the royalties and accolades roll in.

Each of Gladwell's three books ("Tipping Point," "Blink," and "Outliers") follows this formula. It's a proven winner, and at the end of this book, he goes into full rooting mode for another hit in his Acknowledgements: "[A colleague] and I have been two for two so far,'s hoping we go three for three." Wow. Let's just set up a toll-booth.

I don't agree with the five-star reviews. The book is just too thin, anecdotal, and un-analytical to be taken very seriously. On the cover flap, it says that "Tipping Point" changed the way we understand the world, "Blink" changed the way we think about thinking, and "Outliers" will transform the way we understand success. Uh, no. They are all decent books with provocative theses, but none has enough "there" there to change the way most people think about anything.

I also don't agree with the one-star reviews. Gladwell's topics are provocative, his books are easy reads (this one took me just a few hours on vacation, and I'm not that fast a reader), and the stories and anecdotes are interesting. I found myself pretty convinced that birthdates are important to hockey success (so he hooked me with the first part of the book), but each successive chapter became less fact-based and more story-based. That said, it's a nice easy read, and I learned a thing or two. His books are not worthless.

So I give it a nice easy 88-mph down the middle three stars. I must admit, I admire the success he has had with his formula. He makes it look pretty easy.
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I purchased this book thinking that it would be as well-researched and written as his previous two works, "The Tipping Point" and "Blink." Less than a third of a way through the book, however, I began to become concerned that Gladwell's enthusiasm for his topic had blurred his view of important related factors.

As a statistician, I was troubled by his apparent lack of understanding of the concept of "range restriction" in correlational research. He notes that IQ and success appear to be fairly well correlated up to an IQ of 120 or so, and that beyond this level there is very little relationship between IQ and success. Only 10% of the population has an IQ above 120, meaning that very few fall into this classification. Past an IQ of 132, less than 2% of the population is found.

It is clear that one cannot correlate a constant with a variable, since the constant does not change no matter what the value of the variable. Narrowing down the IQ scale to only persons above 120 makes the IQ scale close to a constant.

To provide an analogy, consider the correlation between height and basketball ability. Up to a height of about six feet two inches, there is a very high correlation between height and basketball ability. Above that height, however, other factors become more important than height. Agility, good ball-handling skills, eye-hand coordination, etc., all trump height as important facets of a good basketball player among the tallest 10% of the population. A clumsy seven-footer will never be able to compete with a skilled six-foot-two player.

All of this does not prove that height is unimportant in basketball (even among the top 10% of the population in height), but just that by restricting the range of basketball players to those over six-foot-two essentially guarantees that the correlation of height with basketball skill will be low.

Another sloppy statement in the book indicates that the 1918 flu pandemic was followed by "the First World War, then the Depression, then the Second World War," where clearly the First World War preceded the flu pandemic.

Although there is much about the book that is interesting, these two missteps alone reveal a lack of attention to detail that leads one to wonder how valid the rest of the book is. I sincerely hope that Gladwell's next book will be more along the lines of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink."
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I read Gladwell's "Blink" and was not impressed. Now I've read "Outliers" and I am still not impressed with Gladwell's books, though I have enjoyed his column on occasion.

Gladwell has created an apparently profitable niche for himself. In "Outliers", Gladwell says he wants to lead us to an understanding of success.

He fails.

We get a mish-mash of disparate facts and then conclusions drawn without any real support. Want to excel at something? Practice 10,000 or more hours. The Beatles played 10,000 hours before they acheived popular success. Mozart practiced 10,000 hours before composing his first major work. Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours writing programs. And so on.

Likewise, you must be born at the right time. Gladwell for example takes the example of young student hockey players chosen for championship teams. The teams are stuffed with kids born in the early part of the year. Gladwell correctly concludes this is because at young ages, six extra months of development makes a big difference, so a 9 year old isn't as well developed as a 9.5 year old. But this foolish anomaly in a hocky program is not strong enough to support Gladwell's theory that this kind of "luck" underlies all success.

Anyone familiar with the story of Bill Gates will recognize that Gates' thousand of hours of programming didn't have as much to do with his success as Gates' ability to comprehend the impact of the microprocessor, his unrelenting aggressivness, his family connections which Gladwell entirely ignores and the many other factors that make Gates who and what he is.

Gladwell would have you believe that it was Gates' early exposure to computing that was responsible for the man's success. But Gladwell doesn't tell us the outcomes for the other people at Gates' school where the mother's club bought a terminal for the kids. Are they all software billionaires too?

Gladwell, on the whole, is an entertainer. Kind like a Robert Ripley of many years ago and his "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" with factoids such as that an ant can lift many times its own bodyweight. Like the late Carl Sagan, Gladwell is also a masterful self-promoter.

But Gladwell is not a scientist and what he offers in "Outliers" may be mildly entertaining, but it is not science - and, for that matter, his conclusions are far from fact.

"Outliers" is good as a light afternoon read, but despite the rave reviews from the A-list party crowd Gladwell hangs out with, it is not a very persuasive work. Just some more junk science.

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on December 16, 2008
A criticism common to both Malcolm Gladwell's previous books, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, was that while they were packed with interesting, well told, anecdotes there was no consistent underlying theme to the stories; no particular lesson to be drawn. For example, of the many anecdotes recounted about "thin slicing" some (such as an art expert's ability to instantly assess the bona fides of a statue) suggested it was a special and important skill while others (an impulsive police decision to pursue and shoot dead a innocent bystander) suggested quite the opposite. You were left with the impression that, well, there are these things called snap judgements, and sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don't.

Clearly Malcolm Gladwell has taken those reservations to heart: in Outliers he has been scrupulous to sketch out an integrated underlying thesis and then (for the most part) array his anecdotes - which, as usual, are interesting enough - in support of it.

Unfortunately for him, the theory is a lemon. Nonetheless, the flyleaf is hubristic (and unimaginative) enough to claim "This book really will change the way you think about your life". It's not done that for me, but it has changed the way I think about Malcolm Gladwell's writing. And not for the better.

Gladwell has looked at some psychological research into success and genius and has concluded that, contrary to conventional wisdom, success isn't to be explained by raw talent. The evidence suggests that genuinely exceptional performers, in whatever field - these are the titular "outliers" - can be identified by a combination of unique and unusual *opportunity* and *commitment* to achieve. It isn't talent, but graft and the odd lucky break. Hmm.

A common thread, Gladwell claims, is that most "world class experts", be they "composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, what have you ..." have put in 10,000 hours of practice before really achieving success. So, as the paradigm case goes, the Beatles weren't just in the right place at the right time (though clearly they were), but were instead preternaturally prepared for it by their grueling stint playing hundreds of eight-hour shows in Hamburg, an experience which afforded them both the necessary period of time and unusual opportunity to gain musical proficiency.

The first quibble here is to note that (even allowing for the patent fantasy that the Beatles played eight-hours non stop each night), on Gladwell's own figures, the Hamburg experience - which didn't involve Ringo Starr - still left the band roughly 8,000 hours short of their necessary 10,000. In any case attributing the Beatles' success to their (undisputed) musical proficiency indicates the degree to which Gladwell misses the point, both about rock 'n' roll (wherein neither concerted effort nor musical acumen has often had much to do with initial commercial success - just ask Elvis or the Rolling Stones) and the quality of the data itself. Gladwell's theory suffers from survivor bias: it starts with an undisputed result (the Beatles - clearly an outlier) and works back looking for evidence to support its hypothesis and takes whatever is there: easy enough to do since the "evidence" is definable only in terms of the subsequently occuring success. In less polite circles this is called revisionism.

There will, after all, be no record of the poor loser who spent 10,000 hours at his fretboard and who squandered a wealth of opportunity through ineptitude or bad luck, because, by definition, he never caught the light. Even if you grant Gladwell his theory - and I'm not inclined to - the most that can be said is that he's found a *correlation* between graft and success. But to confuse correlation with causation is a cardinal sin of interpretation (see Stephen Jay Gould's splendid The Mismeasure of Man for a compelling explanation of this fallacy) unless you have independent supporting grounds to justify the causal chain. Gladwell offers none: The Fab Four (well, Fab Three plus Pete Best) may have become a tighter band in Germany, but as Gladwell acknowledges there were many Liverpool bands in Hamburg at the time, all presumably clocking up eight hours non-stop (yeah, right) per night, and none of the others made the cover of Rolling Stone then, or has done since.

Much of the rest of Gladwell's patter is similarly glib: look at any "success story" long enough and you're bound to find something in its past you can designate as the crucial 10,000 hours. But to imply - as Gladwell seems to - that it isn't special talent but nothing more than sheer grit and unique opportunity that creates Outliers seems fatuous, and liable to needlessly encourage a class of plodders who will end up very disappointed (and resentful of M. Gladwell, Esq.) in 10 years' time. It struck me when I listened to him speak in London last month that the 10,000 hours might just as easily be confirmation, rather than falsification, of the presence of raw talent. If you take two violinists, one tone deaf and the other unusually gifted, all else being equal, who is more likely to stick at it for the ten years it takes to achieve concert level proficiency?

To be sure there are some fascinating lessons to be drawn here, but precisely at the point where Gladwell allows himself to drift off the moorings of his underlying theory: ethnic theory of plane crashes, which seemed to establish very little about outliers even on his argument, is cogent (and in these melting markets, timely) caution as to the risks of autocratic behaviour. Towards the end of the book Gladwell reaches some uneasy conclusions that, based on the extraordinary results of Asian schoolchildren in mathematics, that US schools should effectively abandon summer holidays and have children attend school all year round, like they might if they were working in a rice paddy. I'm not convinced that more school (as opposed to better parenting) is the answer.

It was my fortune to be reading Steve Gould's classic tome on scientific sceptism at the same time I read (and listened to) Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell's prescriptions are analogous with the flawed IQ testing programmes Gould so elegantly takes to task: the hypothesis comes first, and the intellectual process behind it is the search for evidence in support of it rather than a dispassionate attempt to falsify. It is hard to imagine how one would go about falsifying (or proving, other than anecdotally) Gladwell's theory and even harder to conceive what prospective use Gladwell's learning, if true, could be. Seeing as the "golden opportunities" can only be identified with hindsight - once your outlier is already lying out there, this feels like the sort of junk science with all the trappings - and utility - of 20:20 rear vision.

Olly Buxton
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on October 25, 2009
This is the only Gladwell book I've read, having been sucked in by its preponderance on best seller lists. However, despite its commercial success I found it really quite devoid of anything particularly new or insightful. I'll admit that my outlook was influenced by two events... First, I saw Mr. Gladwell on a television interview where he shamelessly summarized his success revelations. After reading the book, I realized I had learned nothing beyond what he covered in 15 minutes of verbal Q&A. Second, I had just finished reading Nicolas Nassim Taleb's "Black Swan", a much deeper assessment of how our evolutionary and neurological machinery is wired, which among many other insights points out that the more of an outlier the outcome, the greater the likelihood that pure chance vs. skill has been the underlying cause. Gladwell does acknowledge the role of chance, but his success formula comes down to this.... spend a lot of time doing what you want to be successful at, and be fortunate enough to be born in the right month in the right culture and the right era. Duhhhh. What makes his "research" particularly lightweight is that like many other success-formula writers, he only examines one side of the outcome equation. For example, to believe that the Beatles were successful because of the thousands of hours spent playing together, you must ascertain that the opposite outcome was not equally probable. In other words, where is the research that proves there weren't just as many rock bands who despite spending 3000 hours practicing and playing together ended up as commercial failures swept into oblivion? Those who have not already been seduced by the hype would be better served looking for richer thinking on the subject.
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on June 21, 2009
I don't know how to rate this popular book. I give it four stars for story telling, and one star for originality.
Following two best-selling books, Malcolm Gladwell again masterfully turns bits of trivia into fascinating tales and keeps you turning the pages. From hockey players to computer nerds to airline pilots, it's a series of detective accounts of unusual people around the world famous and not-so famous. The book is an easy and entertaining reading on lazy and hazy summer days, especially for these with a curious mind, preferably well-versed in American culture.

But borrow it from your local library or buy it used. You won't want to read it again due to its total lack of original insights.
One review on this site has already pointed out that 80 percent of the content is known on the net and the rest of the material really just comes from one nice book, Annette Lareau's "Unequal Childhoods." Enough said. I will focus on new insight: does the book have any?

First, the book can be summed up as: "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." This is probably the most famous line uttered by Thomas Edison, arguably the most successful and best-known inventor of all time, with more than a thousand patents to his name. I cannot imagine Gladwell is unaware of this statement. But neither this line nor Edison the extraordinary outlier was in the book. Edison's only mention is on page 37: "He (Bill Gates) is sometimes called the Edison of the Internet." Throughout the book, Gladwell writes as if he has stumbled on something profound and new. It is not. Neither is "talent alone is enough" as deep-rooted a belief in America as Gladwell claims. I recently wrote to a Wall Street Journal writer who penned How Calvin Learned His Ride. [...] To my surprise, Matthew Futterman is totally unaware of this book, yet in that short article he laid out exactly the same logic of success for American racehorse riders: early start and years of endless practice. According to Futterman, that's only possible at the bush tracks in the Cajun country, and that's exactly where most of the star riders came from. Calvin Borel, who almost became the first jockey to win the Triple Crown with different horses, was first put on horseback at age 2, "by the time he began race-riding legally at 16, he already had thousands of races under his belt. After years of riding with a stopwatch he had developed an internal clock in his head and could sense the difference between an eighth-of-a-mile that took 12 seconds and one that took 13."

Second, the insight that one needs a fortunate set of circumstances to be successful is best captured by a pair of opposite Chinese maxims: Tian Shi, Di Li, Ren He (timing, place, social environment are all right for success), Shen Bu Feng Shi (not born at the right time). There is a large social inequality literature with deeper insight in a Western context that the book ignores.

Third, the idea that IQ is but one measure of personal ability is not new: the theory of multiple intelligences was proposed by Howard Gardner in 1983. [...] The idea that success depends on a raw intrinsic intellect has been largely discredited. In the classical experiment conducted by Walter Mischel in 1970, we have learned that the innate ability to control impulsive behavior, what Mischel called "delayed gratification," is the single most important factor in determining a child's future success.

Fourth, the idea that once discovered/developed (e.g., the code for computer operating system), no more chance for future generations is best expressed in John Horgan's 1996 book, The End of Science. The importance of jumping into a new field at the right time is better articulated in the 2005 book On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.

In places where Gladwell seems to be striking out, he is mistaken. For example, he attributes Chinese cultural success at math to rice paddy cultivation. But wait, Chinese civilization was developed in the wheat-growing north whereas the southern rice cultivating regions were long considered backward barbarian lands. My mother, who was born in Burma by Chinese immigrant parents, often tells me stories about how lazy southeast Asian rice farmers were: they would plant rice and stayed home until it's time for harvest. Conditions vary, but I am very skeptical that the requirement for constant back-breaking labor necessarily leads to certain work ethic. His air pilot story is challenged by other reviewers who know the industry.

The conventional wisdom Gladwell challenges is not universal, but perhaps modern America alone. In fact, the opposite is true for the Asian educational tradition and culture. There, and under the guidance of Asian mom in America, young students spend way too much time on structured learning and exam drills. One may wonder if Chris Langan is the unfortunate by-product of an extremely free-flowing and dynamic culture. Do you want to waste a few potential outliers or suppress a whole generation?

While a wake-up call to overly permissible American educators is necessary, the book's suggestion that the government ought to reduce outliers' reward because they should be more grateful for their social circumstances could only lead to a less motivated and dynamic society.

Mcbooks like this and The World Is Flat are what sell well. They are entertaining and educational, but unlikely to have lasting power. As Xu Zhuyuan pointed out, Fast Company will probably regret calling Mr. Gladwell "the Drucker of the 21st century." [...] Years from now, people would be still reading Peter Drucker, but not Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman.
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on December 24, 2008
Spoiler alert! This book contains about a dozen "whoa, amazing" nuggets that could change your life, or at least tell you why you never changed your life, and I'm going to include all of them here just to have them listed somewhere convenient online for my benefit (and yours). But as any Gladwell fan knows, you don't read his writings just for the "holy cow" moments, you read them for the journey he takes you on in delivering those moments. This work provides several amazing journeys, even as they stray progressively farther from what seems to be the advertised purpose of the book: to illustrate how certain people become phenomenal successes. We learn early on the secret to being a great Canadian hockey player, assuming you are already spectacularly talented and work hard. But eventually we wind up learning not how to become a spectacularly successful airline pilot, but rather a spectacularly bad one. No bother, the book is providing entertaining information that can transform your professional life. So as for those dozen points, here goes, and you've already been warned:

1. There was a town in Pennsylvania called Roseto where people lived far longer and suffered far less from heart disease than people of similar genetic stock, eating similar diets, and living in similar nearby towns. The only explanation researchers could find was that Roseto had a uniquely strong sense of community: family and faith were both strong, and the wealthy did not flaunt their success.

2. In the Canadian "all star" junior hockey league - the surest ticket to the NHL - the majority of the players on the winning team were born in January, February, or March. The league was for players between 17 and 20 years old. Why the month anomaly? Because in Canada, elite hockey teams have try-outs at the age of 10, and the age cut-off is January 1. In essence, the oldest 10 year olds are far better at hockey than the youngest 10 year olds, so the youngest (those born in December) have no chance to make the select teams, which are the only ones with excellent coaching. The pattern continues all the way through high school. Similar birthday patterns are seen in places such as the Czech junior national soccer team. Makes you wonder about what "good for your age" means in academics too.

3. Many researchers believe in the "10,000 hour rule," namely that you need to spend about 10,000 hours on a skill - anything, including music, computer programming, business dealings in the expanding American West, or mergers and acquisitions - in order to become great at it. This is something Bill Gates and the Beatles have in common, thanks largely due to circumstances beyond their control.

4. At least 15 of the wealthiest 75 people in world history (in modern dollars) were born in the 9 years from 1831 to 1840. They were old enough to have learned how to profit in the rapidly industrializing United States (via 10,000 hours of experience) but not so old as to have already settled down and been inflexible with their life options or concepts of business. Similar birthdate "coincidences" are seen among the wealthiest tech entrepreneurs including Bill Gates, and among some of the most successful lawyers in New York.

5. In long-term studies, IQ is found to predict professional success - but only up to a score of about 120, past which additional points don't help. Nobel prize winners are equally likely to have IQs of 130 or 180. When minority students are admitted through affirmative action, their achievement scores may be lower, but as long as they are above the threshold, it does not affect the likelihood of professional success.

6. Anecdotes from the "world's smartest man," (according to IQ tests) Chris Langan, and the children of middle class families, suggest that "practical intelligence" about when, how, and with what words to speak up are a huge factor in success - specifically when speaking up can save you from losing a scholarship. Longitudinal studies of high-IQ children showed that a family's high socioeconomic background was more important to predicting success than very high IQ.

7. Many people put in their 10,000 hours in something like computer programming, but then never find themselves in the midst of a revolution where people with 10,000 hours of experience are desperately needed. Bill Gates did. The connections he formed as an early highly-sought programmer helped him rise and found Microsoft. Joe Flom, one of the most successful lawyers in New York, became a specialist in mergers and acquisitions before such transactions were considered "acceptable" business by mainstream lawyers. When the culture changed in the 1980s to accept such dealings, Joe Flom was the best of the best who had put in his 10,000 hours in a now-mainstream business. He became an historic success almost overnight.

8. When economically tough times hit, people stop having children for fear of being unable to provide for them. However, this may be the best time to have children, because there are few other children competing for things such as classroom attention, spots on school sports teams, professors' attention, and jobs upon high school or college graduation. There are also more children a decade behind them who will provide the demand for the goods and services the older children will provide.

9. The typical airline crash involves seven consecutive human errors, and crashes are significantly more likely to occur when the more-experienced captain is flying the plane, as opposed to the subordinate first officer. The likely reason is that the first officer is much less likely to speak up when he or she notices something wrong or a human error, and the captain is flying the plane. Flights in countries with a large "power distance index," which characterizes cultures where subordinates are generally afraid of expressing disagreement with superiors, are the most likely to crash. This included Korean air, which had the worst safety record among major airlines until it instituted a program requiring subordinates to speak up when there were problems. There are benefits to deferential, polite, and subtle conversation, but they are unlikely to be beneficial in stressful cockpit environments.

10. There are at least two non-genetic reasons Asian people excel at math (and some tests have suggested that Asians may have genetic _disadvantages_ in math). First, most commonly used Asian languages use a monosyllablic, ordered, regular system to describe numbers, unlike English and European languages. This gives young children up to a year's head start in math. Second, math often requires persistence and trial and error, characteristics also needed for successful rice farming, the dominant form of agriculture (and employment) in Asia even in the 20th century. Hilarious evidence of correlation of persistence with high math scores is found in results on the TIMSS, an international math exam. The beginning of the exam includes a tedious 120-question section that asks students about their parents' education, their friends, and their views on math, among other things. It is exhausting, requiring great _persistence_, and some students leave it partially blank. If you rank countries by how many of the survey questions their students completed, and by the TIMMS score, the lists are "exactly the same." Holy cow! At the tops of both lists were Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan.

11. Students from middle class and poor neighborhoods show an achievement gap in reading that widens over the years of elementary school. However, the financially poorer students progress (in terms of grades on standardized tests) the _same_ amount during the _academic_ year as the wealthier students. It is during the _summer_ break that better-off students with better-educated families continue to read and learn, while the less well-off students likely do not, and show major declines in autumn test scores compared to the previous spring. Students in "KIPP" (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools showed major success despite coming from low income neighborhoods, because of a much longer school day and academic year.

12. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, tells a story in the final chapter about how his family, and thus he, benefitted from light skin tones and changing racial attitudes in Jamaica. It's a stretch compared to the rest of the book, but gets you thinking and is an awkwardly charming read.
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on December 24, 2008
Outliers is about what makes people successful, and most of the book is effective at pointing out the effect of factors other than each person's individual talent or determination, particularly the family, the social lottery in terms of demographics, ethnicity or season of birth, and the opportunities provided by the economy. The author wisely does not define success, and looks at it in a variety of ways. It can be living long, rising to the top of a sport or an art, or accumulating wealth, but he does not include examples of scientists or politicians. He eloquently denounces crude metrics like IQs as predictors of success, as well as practices by schools or sport federations that choose young children for advanced programs by year of birth, and end up selecting the oldest within that year rather than the most talented.

The first part of the book is on subject and both entertaining and enlightening. Other reviewers have criticized it as anecdotal, unscientific, and poorly researched. The anecdotes, however, told me a few things I hadn't heard before, and, if they have been expressed better in earlier books, that may be but I have not read them and I credit the author for bringing them to my attention.

The second part, entitled "Legacy," on the other hand, is off topic. The ethnic theory of plane crashes, for example, is about the pitfalls of cross-cultural communications in a business where it must happen: Korean crews must talk with American air traffic controllers. Interesting though these challenges may be their connection with outliers and individual success is tenuous at best.

It gets worse in the chapter on rice paddies and math tests. The author alleges that a rice growing culture makes children good not only at math tests but at math itself, and just about everything he says in this chapter is overly general and questionable. First, if growing rice actually made people good at math, how come this body of knowledge was almost entirely developed in the Middle-East and Europe where rice was not a staple?

The author makes much of the conciseness of Chinese number words as an advantage for Asian children, but Japanese number words are not concise: the words one, six, seven and eight have two syllables, and Japanese has not one but two sets of number words in use, a native one and the one borrowed from Chinese. Conceptually, the Chinese way of counting is similar to the Roman system, and not particularly helpful for arithmetic. The key breakthrough in making additions easy was the numerals invented by Arabs.
He describes math in "the West," whatever that label may cover, as being a "rote learning system," but, compared at least to Japan, the teaching of math in the US or Europe involves considerably less rote learning. He also claims that "feudalism simply can't work in a rice economy" (p.236). What about Japan, which had a rice economy in a feudal system for 700 years? And, even though he acknowledges in a footnote that northern China grows wheat rather than rice, everywhere else, he equates Asian with rice growing.
The author also believes that long summer vacations were introduced in the US and Europe to give children rest. Another explanation is that children were given time off school so that they could help with harvests, and that the tradition endured after agriculture stopped being the main economic activity.

At the same time, he omits one obvious explanation for the excellence of students from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore on math tests: they are key to success in the competitive entrance exams for universities. For similar reasons, if students worldwide were given SATs, Americans would probably come out on top.

He concludes the book with the history of his own Jamaican family and how its circumstances shaped him. Is it relevant? Is the author one of the Outliers the book is about? In our own minds, we are all outliers.
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