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Having recently read one of Gladwell's other books, 'Blink'. I was looking forward to reading this as the style of writing that Gladwell uses is very accessible and he presents the findings of research in a way that is a pleasure to read.
Outliers is a fascinating book, but the title 'the story of success' may mislead people into thinking its a self-help book which you could argue it is but definitely not in the conventional sense.
The arguments presented in the book focuses on specific examples of successful people and organisations (outliers- as they are the most extreme examples and don't represent the average).
One prominent example in the book is of Bill Gates. I was fascinated to learn about what led to his success and how his experiences in childhood shaped his future work.
Essentially, the message I understood from the book was that many successful people have a series of 'lucky breaks' that are the catalysts to their future success. This isn't to diminish their achievements as all of the examples of people in the book have demonstrated their extraordinary work ethic and intelligence. Gladwell uses counterexamples of people with exceptional ability that have not had the opportunities or have not taken advantage of the opportunities given to them and as such have not achieved their true potential.
The implications of the research mentioned are quite profound. Gladwell looks at the selection process in competitive sport puts children born closer to the cut off points for age cohort selection at a great advantage as they are physically bigger and stronger and have improved coordination (but not necessarily better technical ability). As a football(soccer) fan in the UK this completely fits the pattern of players you see in youth teams over here, where emphasis is on size and brute strength. These advantages have a compound effect, as year upon year, they are screened and selected, chosen for the elite groups and gain access to better training facilities and coaching. In terms of ability at the start, children are relatively similar, however after several years, due to the opportunities mentioned, the elite chosen players have developed to a far superior standard.
Its a fascinating book and there are countless other anecdotes that illustrate the central points of how successful people are shaped by their experiences. Its certainly a refreshing antidote to the myths propogated by the media and the image many have of the heroic rags to riches fables that we buy into. Success is rarely achieved under such circumstances and this book goes a long way to explain why.
During a discussion with a friend about being in our mid-thirties without having achieved a great deal this book was recommended to me.
Gladwell is a psychologist and staff writer for The New Yorker who hit the mainstream with his two previous books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (2000), and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005). Outliers is another best seller, and presumably is in the same vein (I haven't read his previous books). It is one of those rare things - a deeply researched book (there is an extensive bibliography at the back) which is actually extremely easy reading.
I have seen advertising blurb stating this book as a "self-help" book, but I consider this incorrect. Nowhere does the book give you a method to make your life better. It merely presents a number of cases which explain why your life is how it is. For many people like me, aspiring at something but ultimately underachieving, it gives a number of insightful reasons as to why you might not have achieved the level of success that you would like.
Gladwell argues that success is not so much a product of talent or skill, but one of circumstances, background, application, and opportunities. He discusses (at length and with specific case studies) why, for example, being born at the beginning of the school year gives you an academic and sporting advantage, why being in the right place at the right time was instrumental in the success achieved by people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. He talks about why application and the opportunity to do so is far more important to success than simply being an IQ "genius".
He also talks a lot about cultural background. Having flown on Korean Air a number of times (and considered it among the best airlines I've used) it was quite a shock to hear about its prior poor safety record (to 2000), and also the way in which this was turned around by means of investigating the social hierarchy of the Korean people and the way it plays out in the cockpit of an aeroplane. Also, too, as a resident of Japan, it was interesting to read about why people with a background in rice farming are far harder working than those whose cultural heritage revolved around less intensive crop production.
Overall, this book won't change your life. It won't tell you how to become a millionaire or how to become famous, but for anyone perennially frustrated with their standing in life and their lack of achievements, it will help to explain why you are not.
AN INTRIGUING INTERVIEW
I have previously had a bash at reading business and self-improvement type books such as "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" (Covey), "Getting To Yes" (Fisher & Ury) and "Good To Great" (Jim Collins) but without much enthusiasm and with varying degrees of success. Most times, it was out of some half-baked idea that I was "supposed" to read that sort of stuff to give me an edge in my job, but, as with most things, I got out of them what I put in - which, admittedly, was not much.
As such, Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" was not even on my radar. In fact, I doubt I would ever have read it but for the circumstances in which it was given to me. I was interviewing for my current job and, of the many one to one sessions I had, one was with the General Manager for the business' European operations. His brief was to find out a bit about what motivated me, what my values were and whether I was a good personality fit for his team. The interview was in his office.
After giving him a potted personal history, including where my parents came from and how they have influenced me, he popped up and told me "I have just the book for you" - and pulled a copy of "Outliers" from his shelf. Handing it over, he described the basic premise - there is no such thing as a rags to riches success story - it's all about good people finding themselves with the right opportunities at the right time and making the most of the chances they get. I found the concept intriguing - even more so when he insisted I take the copy home with me. Three weeks later, when I was offered the job, I thought I best have a crack at it, just in case there was a pop quiz when I met him again!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist and writer who has worked for some of the biggest names in the American press - the Washington Post, the American Spectator, and most recently, the New Yorker. He was born in the UK, but grew up in Canada and has spent most of his professional life working in the USA. He has two other books - "Blink" (2005) and "The Tipping Point" (2000) - both of which were international bestsellers. "Outliers: The Story of Success" is his third book and was published in 2008. It is currently available in paperback from Amazon.co.uk for £5.00.
Gladwell's proposition is simple. He argues that the stereotypical tale of the working class man, who comes from nothing and builds an empire through sheer hard work and perseverance is a bit of a myth. If you scratch the surface of any successful person, you will find some common denominators that seem to apply in almost every case. Central to his theory is that ten thousand hours of practice in any field - be it playing the violin, programming computers, practising a certain kind of law, or even being a rock star - goes a long way to making a person a master at their chosen profession. However, hard work by itself does not guarantee success - there has to be an opportunity, a lucky break - whether personally or in a wider social context, for the seed of hard work to germinate.
He focuses a great deal on the windows of opportunity that present themselves during the modern course of human history, and how certain people, because they had the breaks, were well poised to take advantage. He uses specific examples - such as the select group of computer enthusiasts that ended up founding some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley (such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and Paul Allen) to back up his hypotheses and it's remarkable how consistently he seems to be right. Taking a contrarian view throughout, he challenges the lazily held presumptions that society seems to turn to when looking at people who have made it big and are deemed successful. He also argues that "genius" as we define it, is no guarantee of success either, using the example of Christopher Langan, who by all accounts, had the highest IQ ever recorded in modern times, but who, by our definition of success, was a bit of a loser.
Gladwell is essentially saying that success actually consists of hard work and expertise gained either through exceptional IQ or loads of practice, but that neither of these two elements is enough by itself. To understand why a person has succeeded, we have to look, not only at who they are and what they have personally accomplished, but where they come from as well. His central theme is that we are as much a product of our environment and upbringing as we are products of our enterprise and hard work. No one can make it alone - not even a genius - can achieve success by him or herself.
One of the most interesting analyses is of the preconception that Asian children have a natural ability at mathematics when compared to children of similar age in the West. His review of the social, cultural and educational reasons for this makes compelling reading, and I won't spoil your enjoyment by revealing it here. Suffice it to say, it's eye-opening stuff.
Gladwell has an easy, engaging style with a real knack for story-telling. His arguments are challenging, provocative and well made, with some interesting and relevant data to back up his theories. The book is a very entertaining and quick read, and where tables and charts are used to illustrate his points, they blend into the narrative very well and don't interrupt the flow.
To an extent, when the GM of my new company handed me the book to read, he obviously had Gladwell's basic premise in mind. According to Gladwell, the reason I was sat there, being interviewed for a high-profile job in an established US company, was because of the hard work my parents had put in to give me the right opportunities, the right environment, and the right set of values to make the best of the my God-given talents.
It's an interesting premise, and the book is certainly well worth the read. However, I think it falls a little short of its ambitious aims. In my view, the way it is written suggests that the author had already decided on his conclusion, and then set about fitting the circumstances and the data at his disposal to make a case for his theory. As anyone who has studied even basic science will know, that's the wrong way around. You assemble the data first and then you interpret it, coming to whichever conclusion it may lead you to.
Even though the concepts are simple - and to be fair - hardly ground-breaking - there is a lot of merit and power in Gladwell's well-made arguments, it's just that he leaves the reader with the nagging feeling that, if we scratch the surface of his basic premise (ironically, that's exactly what he asks us to do with our preconceptions of success), we will probably find that the theory doesn't hold as much water as we thought.
To be frank, I had neither the time nor the inclination to dig any deeper, and, as such, am willing to treat "Outliers" for what it is - an interesting contrarian view of what constitutes success, often inspiring, entertaining and diverting in equal measure, but one that demands closer scrutiny before being wholeheartedly embraced.
Outliers: The Story of Success
© Hishyeness 2010
Malcom Gladwell's Outliers is a look at the story of success and is the most recent release from the author after his critically and publicly acclaimed 'The Tipping Point'.
Illuminating and extremely interesting, the book presents an original and thought-provoking framework for looking at personal success - suggesting that the relative success of an individual is a product more of the environment in which he/she is raised. The book looks at how the year in which a person is born, the area, the family they are bought up by and the people that are around them throughout their key developmental stages and opportunities shape what a person becomes far more than personal traits or character.
I thouroughly enjoyed reading this book and couldn't stop talking about it to people, i would highly recommend it as an excellent example of what thought-provoking non-fiction should be.
I've always looked at successful people and like most, wondered what they were like as an individual; giving little or no thought to their upbringing and environment. An excellent example is Gladwell's examination of Ice Hockey in Canada - he looks at the most successful players in the league and examines the month in which they were born, finding that a massive percentage of the players were born in the first three months of the year. He goes on to explain that the major reason for this is that the cut-off for Canadian hockey leagues (u14, u15, u16, etc) is January. This meant that people born in the first three months of the year were the amongst the oldest in their respective peer groups and in their very early stages were more developed, not as athletes but as people. They were up to 10 months older than their peers and therefore were more developed physically and mentally. This meant they were the biggest, strongest and fastest in the group and were picked out at an early age as excellent, being seperated from their peers and receiving years of extra coaching and practise. After 10 or so years these players would be better athletes due to the extra time and coaching but may not necessarily have been better athletes at the time they were selected as the best in their group.
I would thoroughly recommend reading this book or downloading it from iTunes as an audio book.