Outliers: The Story of Success
Ever caught yourself questioning why Bill Gates is Bill Gates, why Chinese people are so good at math, why geniuses are geniuses, why ice hockey players are ice hockey players or why these outliers are what they are – Outliers.
Wouldn’t it be cool if all unusual people around us had a pattern? Outliers is a typical Malcolm Gladwell style where he talks about a phenomenon and then supports it with a number of relevant anecdotes as evidences. Following the pattern of the Tipping Point, he describes trends and other activities that “spread just like viruses” and his next book, Blink where he engaged the reader of the “thin-slicing” phenomenon, which is the ability to gauge what really matters in a short amount of time. In Outliers, he describes why some people stand out and do exceptionally well than others.
The book begins by listing date of births of all Canadian hockey players, which are remarkably similar, and questions the reader as he moves on to the next case of the software empire. Sure we all know that Bill Gates is who he is because he is a genius and has all the IT-related talents, but is there more than that? According to the best-selling writer, aside from his intelligence, his fortune is all because he was born in 1955 like Steve Jobs (1955), Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen (1953), Bill Joy and Scott McNealy, co-founders of Sun Microsystems (1954). Being born in that year gave Bill Gates an advantage over others as that allowed him to have enough experience learning the Altair 8800 (the first do-it-yourself computer kit). Moreover, Gladwell also pointed out that other computer geniuses were also born in almost the same timeline, co-incidence much?
In this book, Gladwell emphasizes on an interesting phenomenon, the “10,000-hour rule”. He highlights Andres Ericsson’s study that suggests that anyone who spends 10,000 hours into anything, will excel in that profession. He explained that from 1960 to 1964, the Beatles spent over 10,000 hours playing in Hamburg, Germany before they came to England, which met the 10,000-hour rule of perfection. Therefore, by the time their music was brought to England, they had excelled in their music, as put by Gladwell “They sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.” According to the writer, the software maestros and hockey players met their 10,000-hour rule requirement by being born at the right time to make the most of the opportunities that they could score.
Opportunities in Gladwell’s assessment of geniuses make all the difference. He describes an anecdote of Christopher Langan who with an IQ of 195 ran a horse farm in rural Missouri, compared with the 150 IQ of Einstein. The writer further emphasizes “No one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses – ever make it alone.”
Despite the thought-provoking anecdotes, the Outliers is often criticized for being repetitive in some aspects. The writer also drifts off-track with his topic of success when he describes violence in South America, the healthy small Italian community in the States and the rice paddies in China. Another concept the writer highlights is that language and culture in different countries make all the difference in terms of success. The Chinese are smart in math because their numbers are more consistent than English, which gives them an ‘edge’ at addition/subtraction and memorizing digits. The Korean planes crashed because as it was found in post-crash black box recordings that since the Koreans have too many (six) forms of formal “you” instead of the single formal/informal form “you”, the highest form of respect is used for the flight captain and therefore, criticizing the captain was impossible. With English as the revised official language for Korean flight control, the number of crashes reduced significantly. Despite the fascinating and inspirational evidences, the small studies cited as evidences have a higher risk for false positive results.
The writer concludes with an overarching narrative/autobiography describing his heritage with emphasis on his Jamaican mother, daughter of a slave. He states that the opportunities that his maternal family got are only because his grandmother was able to escape a lifetime of slavery in the West Indies.
Gladwell’s overall summary is that 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.”
By: Mariam Malik