Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and essayist for The New Yorker magazine, is best known for The Tipping Point, in which he challenged our most deeply held assumptions about how the world works and showed us that seemingly little things can make a very big difference.  In his follow-up, Blink, he challenged our dearest notions about thought itself and showed that in many situations it only takes a very short time–the blink of an eye, if you will–to gather all of the information necessary to make good decisions.

In Outliers, Gladwell is at it again.  This time he challenges our most deeply-held beliefs about success–namely that it is almost exclusively the result of factors within an individual, such as innate talent or drive or motivation.  External factors have a lot to do with success–much more than we are willing to admit.

Gladwell starts off with the example of Canadian junior league hockey.  Now, hockey is the national pastime in Canada and their youth league system is set up to make sure that the best of the best will rise to the top.  Right?  Well…it’s a little more complicated than that.  If you look at the players at the very top of the junior league system, the ones who will in all likelihood go on to play professional hockey, you will find that a disproportionate majority have birthdays in January, February, and March.  It would seem that there is some sort of astrological phenomenon at work where prospective hockey players with birthdays in these three months are blessed with unusually prodigious amounts of talent.  But the causes of this phenomenon are actually more man-made than that.  Children are eligible to start junior-league hockey at age 9, and the cutoff date is January 1.  Because of this, children with birthdays in the months immediately after the cutoff date get to start earlier than children with birthdays in the months immediately before the cutoff date.  This results in a pronounced advantage for children with birthdays in January, February, or March–which only accumulates as these children move through the program and on to the higher levels of competition.

It has been found, Gladwell notes, that in order to attain mastery of any skill–whether a sport, a musical instrument, a game, an artistic discipline, or a profession–one must spend at least 10,000 hours practicing this skill.  This is true regardless of one’s level of innate talent, ambition, drive, motivation, or whatever.  Gladwell gives the examples of the Beatles–who, because they happened to have the opportunity to go to Liverpool and were in a position where they had to perform in order to make a living, were able to log the requisite 10,000 hours of musical performance–and Bill Gates, who, because of where he went to school, the connections that this school and its parents had, and the time during which he was growing up, was able to log the 10,000 hours necessary to attain mastery of computer programming.

All of this goes to show that external factors, such as place and time of birth, play a large role in the phenomenon of success–a much bigger role than we are accustomed to giving them credit for.

Gladwell presents ideas which force us to think in new ways about things we thought we understood.  He is an excellent storyteller and his writing is very compelling; once you pick up one of his works you will find it very hard to put down.  If you are prepared to call into question everything you thought you knew about success and about what it takes to be successful, then I strongly recommend Outliers.

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