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The Secret of My Success...Apparently
Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
Member Name: Hishyeness
Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
Advantages: An engaging, entertaining and sometimes provocative read
Disadvantages: Intriguing theories, but lacking a bit of substance
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
Summary: Gladwell argues that there's no such thing as a pure rags to riches story
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