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Outliers: The Story of Success Hardcover – November 18, 2008
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Amazon Best of the Month, November 2008: Now that he's gotten us talking about the viral life of ideas and the power of gut reactions, Malcolm Gladwell poses a more provocative question in Outliers: why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? Challenging our cherished belief of the "self-made man," he makes the democratic assertion that superstars don't arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: "they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky."
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
SignatureReviewed by Leslie ChangIn Outliers, Gladwell (The Tipping Point) once again proves masterful in a genre he essentially pioneered—the book that illuminates secret patterns behind everyday phenomena. His gift for spotting an intriguing mystery, luring the reader in, then gradually revealing his lessons in lucid prose, is on vivid display. Outliers begins with a provocative look at why certain five-year-old boys enjoy an advantage in ice hockey, and how these advantages accumulate over time. We learn what Bill Gates, the Beatles and Mozart had in common: along with talent and ambition, each enjoyed an unusual opportunity to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers. A detailed investigation of the unique culture and skills of Eastern European Jewish immigrants persuasively explains their rise in 20th-century New York, first in the garment trade and then in the legal profession. Through case studies ranging from Canadian junior hockey champions to the robber barons of the Gilded Age, from Asian math whizzes to software entrepreneurs to the rise of his own family in Jamaica, Gladwell tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account for success—and how historical legacies can hold others back despite ample individual gifts. Even as we know how many of these stories end, Gladwell restores the suspense and serendipity to these narratives that make them fresh and surprising.One hazard of this genre is glibness. In seeking to understand why Asian children score higher on math tests, Gladwell explores the persistence and painstaking labor required to cultivate rice as it has been done in East Asia for thousands of years; though fascinating in its details, the study does not prove that a rice-growing heritage explains math prowess, as Gladwell asserts. Another pitfall is the urge to state the obvious: No one, Gladwell concludes in a chapter comparing a high-IQ failure named Chris Langan with the brilliantly successful J. Robert Oppenheimer, not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone. But who in this day and age believes that a high intelligence quotient in itself promises success? In structuring his book against that assumption, Gladwell has set up a decidedly flimsy straw man. In the end it is the seemingly airtight nature of Gladwell's arguments that works against him. His conclusions are built almost exclusively on the findings of others—sociologists, psychologists, economists, historians—yet he rarely delves into the methodology behind those studies. And he is free to cherry-pick those cases that best illustrate his points; one is always left wondering about the data he evaluated and rejected because it did not support his argument, or perhaps contradicted it altogether. Real life is seldom as neat as it appears in a Malcolm Gladwell book. (Nov.)Leslie T. Chang is the author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Spiegel & Grau).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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1. While it started off strongly, it rapidly fell off in all aspects about a third in. The writing was less to the point, the points were less groundbreaking, and seemed to be supported by rather anecdotal observations. It had a comeback here and there, but the majority of the book as weak imo.
2. Overdone storytelling. About 1/5th of the book is spent on a chapter on plane crashes. He makes a very smart and interesting point, but that point was made after about 30 minutes, yet he kept going bringing example after example in excruciating detail. This is closely related to point 1 as it appears that as substance decreased, the exposition of description increased.
3. His stance is too extreme. If the tale of the self made man is one extreme, then outliers is the other extreme as it basically attempts to discredit the successful and say it was all due to luck. He keeps mentioning Bill Gates and how "lucky" he was to have a computer in his school. He also mentions that there were only a handful of school at the time to have such a computer. Well a handful of schools say 12? With say 1000 students on average each? That means 12,000 others had the same chance as him. 12,000 that did not program all night long, to learn this new skill, but rather chose to play ball or worry about boys/girls. While we can discredit everyone by the logic of "if X did not happen, he would not have accomplished Y", the truth is this Malcolm: We are around so much opportunity, more so now than ever, that it's less a question of whether there is opportunity, nut whether we take advantage of it. You are correct that now I'd have a harder time creating my own operating system, that ship has sailed, I agree, but that is looking at success with a very narrow lense. There is always an opportune industry for one to break into, and all it takes is seizing those opportunities. As with your mother, you mention in the Epilogue, if it were not for someone having given her money to go to school, things would have been very different. Don't you think that is selling her short? I'm sure she would have kept asking until she found someone else to give her money.
The true story of success is that successful people will not let their story be changed by adding or removing a variable from their path, they will keep fighting and find something to replace that variable. That's why some of the most successful people have been declined or faced defeat (be it investors, agents, etc.) over a hundred times and kept going. If you'd go back and take away their investor, its safe to say they would have kept going to another 100 and eventually found someone else. And that attitude, as you may claim, is not a stone cold result of legacy, as both those born of a privileged background as well as those with the most painful of pasts have those attitudes... because an attitude is decided in the moment, not something we are born with or given.
In conclusion, it is an interesting read if you want to learn more about people, but take it with a grain of salt. This is NOT personal development, or anything of the sort in case you think this is a book I read and learn to be successful... quite contrary the message appears to comfort those that don't have success and blame society, and poke those with success implying that whatever they have was not earned.
While his second premise makes sense to most of us, it is frequently downplayed in favor of intelligence, desire, ambition, and other character traits when analyzing the achievements of the famous and highly successful. No one, no matter how smart and driven, can do it alone, says Gladwell. And he insists that enough favorable factors must come together to clear the path and propel the individual to become a winner. For example, Bill Gates was born at the right time (computers coming into their own), to wealthy parents, and through various fortuitous events ended up in a situation that gave him unprecedented access to computers in the late 1960's when he was only an eighth grader. Various individuals acted as facilitators to make it possible for him to continue his programming work through high school and into college. In Gates words, "I was very lucky."
Gladwell recognizes that Gates was brilliant and driven, and those faculties no doubt played in his favor, but the author maintains that the right circumstances—the precise state of technology when he was just the right age, the financial means, the mentors and coincidences—had to be there. He supports the argument by using contrast, including examples of extremely intelligent individuals, geniuses in fact, who were also highly motivated, but whose life circumstances did not favor them, and thus failed to achieve their enormous potential. In fact, he shows that high intelligence is an advantageous factor in achieving success only to a point beyond which it does not matter how many more IQ points you register.
Curiously, Gladwell misses an opportunity to advance more of his basic premises when analyzing the success of the Beatles, instead narrowing his focus on the break the band got by accepting a gig in Hamburg, Germany, which forced them to play a variety of music genres many hours daily, seven days a week before they took America by storm. His emphasis here is the number of hours the Beatles played during that time, which made them much better musicians, but he does not highlight that the turbulent 1960's were ripe for radical change in various areas of society, music being one. One of the author's main points in other parts of the book is that the period in which a person happens to be alive has an enormous influence on his or her personal life outcome, and the Beatles are a perfect example of that. And yet, Gladwell does not seize the opportunity to emphasize this. Quite odd, really.
The influence of culture in determining success or failure in specific fields is interestingly illustrated in Gladwell's analysis of airplane crashes. Until recently, Korean Air had a relatively high number of accidents, and it was discovered that this was largely due to their culture, which frowns upon the questioning of authority. It was found that Korean co-pilots and flight engineers were extremely hesitant to question the Captain's actions and decisions, much less clearly convey their concerns, when they detected potential problems.
A similar situation resulted in an Avianca (a Colombian airline) crash in New York in January 1990. In that incident, the factors of bad weather, a very tired flight captain, and a malfunctioning auto-pilot were exacerbated by their being on a holding pattern over the city while running out of fuel and the first officer's reluctance to convey the gravity of the situation forcefully enough to the very busy and commanding New York air traffic controllers. He did not want to anger the "authorities," so the exchanges via radio maintained a business-as-usual tone until the plane eventually ran out of fuel and crashed.
Gladwell offers many other fascinating and surprising facts in Outliers, such as the odd relationship between successful hockey players and their birth month, why the 1930's was the perfect time for New York Jewish lawyers to be born, why the 1950's residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania seemed immune to heart disease even though their diet was loaded with fat, few were committed to exercise, and many smoked heavily and struggled with obesity.
If you find these extraordinary social phenomena interesting, you will like this book.
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