Book Review: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

December 28, 2009 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

I haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s earlier bestsellers The Flipping Point and Blink, but many people I know rave about his third book, Outliers.  A friend lent it to me for a couple of weeks and I must admit I am now a fan.

Outliers is a non-fiction book that looks into the way society perceives success.  We tend to think that massively successful people, like the Bill Gates and The Beatles, are outliers, freaks of nature who fall outside the normal realms of possibility for ordinary people.  Gladwell, on the other hand, reminds us that success (and by this I mean phenomenal success), is a product of not only natural talent, but also extreme hard work, fortuitous opportunities, as well as cultural background and upbringing.  To be fair, there isn’t anything entirely novel about the ideas in the book, but it’s the way Gladwell structures and writes it that makes it so unputdownable.

Outliers starts off with a look at the so-called ‘Rosetta’ mystery – why a town of people who live according to their own cultural rules live longer and are more immune to heart problems than everyone else, despite not having more healthy diets or living habits.   It’s a starting point which demonstrates that everything has an underlying reason, and to get to the root of it, you inevitably have to dig deeper.

The book then delves into various aspects of what makes a person super successful.  Of course, there is the natural, innate talent.  There’s no doubt that some people are born better than others at certain things, and that talent is imperative to success.   But there are also plenty of other factors you may not have considered.

For instance, the date you were born.  Gladwell considers the cut-off dates of sports teams for youths, and discovers that the time of the year you were born could dictate whether you are most likely to be just an average athlete, or perhaps provide you with an opportunity to become a star.

Another fascinating chapter looks at the hard work of professional musicians (such as The Beatles) and IT whizzes such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy.  Of course, extreme, prolonged periods of hard work is important to becoming successful, but being at the right place and time to give you that opportunity to work hard is equally important.  Each of The Beatles, Bill Gates and Bill Joy all worked exceptionally hard in their respective fields, but they were also recipients of some extraordinary twists of fate which put them on their paths to stardom.

Then there’s the story of Joe Flom, one of the most successful lawyers in the one of the most successful law firms on Wall Street.  Flom was also one of those guys that appeared to have the world against him, but what initially seemed like bad luck and awful injustice actually led him to becoming the man he is today.

That’s not all. Cultural backgrounds and ancestry are also contributing factors to success, according to Gladwell.  Why are Asian children typically so good at mathematics?  Why are Mid-Western Americans more temperamental?  These are just some of the things Gladwell considers.

There are plenty of tales of success in Outliers, but success stories alone aren’t sufficient – there are also stories of failure that help illustrate Gladwell’s point.  One of them is Chris Lagan, considered by many as the smartest man in America, and yet he never managed to live up to the expectations of his brain.  Another story of failure deals with the catastrophes of Korean Airlines, where Gladwell shows that many of the airline’s plane crashes could have been avoided had the pilots not been so constrained by their culture.

I love Gladwell’s style. He writes in a simple, unassuming manner that communicates the message across in the simplest way possible. He starts off each chapter by telling a story that leaves little clue as to where it is heading.  It grabs your attention as you wonder what he the heck he is trying to get at.  But then, by the end of that intro, he reveals that there’s a long back-story that forms the foundation of the point he is making, and then get down into the nitty gritty of it.  It’s the type of writing I would like to try and emulate.

Of course, you won’t necessarily agree with every point Gladwell makes, and you won’t always find what he is saying interesting.  Sometimes you may think he’s making something out of nothing, or perhaps stretching statistics and coincidences too far.   Every person’s life is full of opportunities, small, big, or life-changing.  Gladwell never comes out and says it – but the essence of what Outliers is getting at is that mega-success is really a product of fate, and being able to make the most of it.

Nevertheless, I found it fascinating reading Gladwell as he tries to connect all the dots and delivers compelling theories and arguments.  When I get a chance, I’m definitely going to check out Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures.

4 out of 5 stars!