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154 of 180 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Outlandish, December 16, 2008
This review is from: Outliers: The Story of Success (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-10 of 20 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 19, 2008 6:58:42 AM PST
Excellent review. I had musings about the authors style and substance but could not place why i was unsure of the total validity of the information and content. Now i understand. It reminds me of being served a nice "presentation" of a dinner at a restaurant, only to find out that the chef really did not prepare the meal more than he knew how "to serve it up". Good job on explaining the feelings i was having.

Posted on Dec 28, 2008 1:26:53 PM PST
R. Mutt says:
Now that's a book review. This book is indeed based on the idea of coming up with a hypothesis and then looking for the evidence to support it rather than prove it correct. It's easy to find "evidence" to support even the nuttiest ideas, as the New Age book section at any bookstore will prominently display. Another thing this review points out, that many others seem to miss, is that the book isn't useful. Then again, very few popular science books are.

Posted on Jan 19, 2009 8:51:13 PM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Feb 2, 2013 2:52:21 PM PST]

Posted on Feb 17, 2009 10:37:47 AM PST
Reed Stevens says:
Brilliant, Mr Buxton! But "Outliers" made me feel sooo good about my mediocre life and my pitiably ordinary forefathers and mothers. Why, it's remarkable they could feed and breed themselves. At 68 I can sit back in my rocker and feel content I've done the best I could. I forgive myself all my shortcomings- nothing is my fault anymore.

I can't wait to read about acting impulsively. That's okay, too! Worth the twenty bucks.

Posted on Mar 21, 2009 10:28:54 AM PDT
Thanks for this. I wonder, though, if some people's reactions to Gladwell's premise aren't based on justifications relating to their personal lives. Someone else here suggests his book makes him feel good about his mediocre talent, but I found myself in the opposite camp. I was vaguely uncomfortable reading this book because of my family's generally high performance on all kinds of tests, IQ or achievement. My kids are those ones who score near perfect on everything. So, yeah, I didn't want to read that this isn't enough to make them successful. I know it's true--that the kids who have drive and winning personalities and loads of wealth (read: opportunity)--are more likely to make something of themselves, but nevertheless, I sort of hated to see it in black and white. Anyway, you mention some logical objections to Gladwell's conclusions, and I commend you. I'm off to read Gould.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2009 1:58:27 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2009 2:51:28 PM PDT
Gina Pera says:
Interesting point, Viewer. I'm not sure that Gladwell's celebrity hasn't gone to his head, making such wild leaps, especially based on nothing but association (never mind causation).

There is some evidence that the script of Asian languages influences brain "wiring" or perhaps there are even neuroanatomical differences. It's ridiculous to attribute everything to culture and/or environment. From the interviews I've heard with Gladwell, I've been aghast at his certitude on subjects where he seems obviously poorly schooled.

Posted on Nov 2, 2009 7:37:34 PM PST
Great review, Olly. I especially appreciate the references to Gould. Now there is someone who can deliver a solid argument.

Posted on Dec 8, 2010 2:46:19 PM PST
Greg Ratzel says:
Um, you totally missed the point of Gladwell's argument. The equation he suggests isn't Opportunity + Commitment = Success. It's Talent + Opportunity + Commitment = Success. Aptitude is still essential. Any one of these by itself is commonplace, but find them in conjunction and you find outliers. This is a useful insight beyond the usual platitude of "oh they were just born lucky".

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 8, 2010 10:59:16 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 9, 2010 4:56:19 AM PST
Olly Buxton says:
No, I don't think I did. I make three points: Firstly, his anecdotes (and that's what they are) don't support his "equation". Secondly, the "commitment" Gladwell hypothesises isn't a universal feature of outliers in general (and isn't even a feature of all the examples he cites), and thirdly, because of the inbuilt survivor bias of Gladwell's theory and his means of proving it, the insight, however accurate it might be, is never useful, because it is only observable retrospectively.

Clearly not everyone with talent, opportunity and commitment achieves outlying success. Clearly some people, without unusual talent or massive commitment, do.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 25, 2010 3:17:46 PM PST
Guy says:
"Another thing this review points out, that many others seem to miss, is that the book isn't useful."

I disagree. It's ammunition against republican notions of "pulling your self up by your bootstraps." The KIPP part in the book is useful.
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