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Outliers: The Story of Success Hardcover – Big Book, November 18, 2008
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His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.
Brilliant and entertaining, Outliers is a landmark work that will simultaneously delight and illuminate.
Outliers can be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendents of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots' culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math. But there's more to it than that. Throughout all of these examples--and in more that delve into the social benefits of lighter skin color, and the reasons for school achievement gaps--Gladwell invites conversations about the complex ways privilege manifests in our culture. He leaves us pondering the gifts of our own history, and how the world could benefit if more of our kids were granted the opportunities to fulfill their remarkable potential. --Mari Malcolm
From Publishers Weekly
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- ASIN : 0316017922
- Publisher : Little, Brown and Company; Illustrated edition (November 18, 2008)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 309 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780316017923
- ISBN-13 : 978-0316017923
- Lexile measure : 1080L
- Item Weight : 14.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.8 x 1.3 x 8.4 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #16,895 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Reviewed in the United States on August 10, 2018
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Impressing people without even meaning to is one of the earliest memories I have in life. After devouring all of the chapter and picture books I could get my hands on at pre-school age, my parent's classics and old science textbooks (or at least the ones I could reach off the bottom shelf) seemed the next natural step. Dad frequently retells a story in which he asks me as a toddler how I got to be so smart; I replied "good genes". Public school has no idea what to do with a kid who signs up for kindergarten being already able to read novels, play piano sheet music and execute batch files in DOS. I was tested at age 7 with an IQ of 163 upon entering the second grade, having already been skipped a grade ahead as well as being a year younger still due to having a September birthday. This conflict between being significantly younger than my peers at a critical age of development and also several standard deviations more intelligent than them was to be a continual source of strife. I begged and pleaded with my parents not to hold me back, not understanding the implications of being so much less emotionally mature than my peers. On the first day of class I got sent to the principal's office for taking my shoes off and refusing to put them back on. At 9, the teachers were fed up with me reading or drawing and 'distracting others' in class but also couldn't fail me when I was getting perfect grades, so I was pulled out and sent to a private school for the gifted, where after a year of constant boredom (diagnosed and medicated as ADHD) and other behavioral problems my teachers treated me as a class scapegoat and suggest that I be better off homeschooled or back in public school. These events marked the beginning of a long scholastic career of underachievement, contempt of authority, and befuddled administrators who weren't sure whether I belonged in the gifted program or Special Ed.
I was lucky enough to be born into a white, middle class family in one of the most highly educated and prosperous parts of the United States. My parents were psychology majors who read all the right books and took all the proper steps in terms of nurturing the development of a gifted child without stifling or overloading me. So why am I not in the same percentile of overall life success as I am in test score range? Gladwell goes into the many statistical reasons why the high-IQ child is no more likely to become successful than any other child when demographic influences are controlled for, some factors as completely out of our control as being born in the wrong month of the year. He also gets down to what I believe is the true difference between successful and unsuccessful people, the willingness to work hard. If I had been self-disciplined enough to put in the hours academically to master unfavorable subjects with the same voracity with which I took to computers, art, music and reading, plus a less cynical attitude towards the school system, I might have gotten a full ride scholarship to any of the best universities in the world. As it is, I'll have to settle for a community college degree acquired at age 19, being published and owning my own business by 21, and knowing that if I do desire to learn a new skill at any point in life, the only thing standing in my way is myself. (Though, as a side note, I definitely pick up new skills a lot slower than I used to as a child and find myself stymied more often, indications that my IQ has dropped either from aging or drug/alcohol use, something that I try to compensate for with extra patience).
Though it will always be embarrassing and awkward, I've gotten used to the incredulous stares and people asking "how did you do that", though I never had a particularly good answer. "Lots of practice, the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time, and luck" is the old standby, though it sometimes felt insincere. Now, thanks to 'Outliers', I realize that's not an overly humble explanation of genius. If I ever have kids, I will not subject them to a barrage of tests in order to find out exactly how "special" they are. I will accept that they are special simply on the virtue that they are them, listen to them to find out what they truly love to do and push them to achieve high but realistic expectations. And that's my advice for children of all ages - do what it takes to be whatever you want to be and do the hell out of it.
Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:
1- "Wolf and Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn't be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual's personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are. In Outliers I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health."
2- "Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder."
3- "We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But there's nothing in any of the histories we've looked at so far to suggest things are that simple. These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up."
4- "The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage."
5- "Those three things--autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward--are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying...Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful."
6- "So far in Outliers we've seen that success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: when and where you are born, what your parents did tor a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world. The question for the second part of Outliers is whether the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears can play the same role. Can we learn something about why people succeed and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural legacies seriously? 1 think we can."
7- "Each of us has his or her own distinct personality. But overlaid on top of that are tendencies and assumptions and reflexes handed down to us by the history of the community we grew up in, and those differences are extraordinarily specific."
8- "The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how ten it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths ot the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a timesharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success--the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history--with a society that provides opportunities for all."
9- "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."
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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.
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).
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
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).