Sunday, May 10, 2009

Outliers - A Review

Malcolm Gladwell OutliersI read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success this past week. I have read his other books Blink and The Tipping Point and enjoyed them. So when I heard that he had a new book out, I figured I would check it out.

From the onset I was intrigued by the subject matter. The focus of the book is what makes some of us successful and others of us not. Is it genetics, upbringing, or environment? Is it something else entirely? As someone who considers himself success and is looking to become more so, I was interested in what factors may have and will continue to contribute to this outcome.

Gladwell spends the first few chapters looking at people who anybody would consider outliers and looking at the set of circumstances that made the person successful. He looks at people like Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and Robert Oppenheimer. He looks at a group of people like professional hockey players and wondered if successful athletes have any common characteristics. What was perhaps the most interesting part of the book (which unfortunately was at the very beginning), he points out that one startling fact is that the vast majority of people who plan in the best leagues in Canada are born in the first three months of the year. This is not some strange statistical anomaly. No, the results are so skewed something must be going on. It turns out your birthday can have a dramatic effect on your eventual success. Think about it. Canadian youth hockey groups kids by their age. The cutoff is January 1st. So all kids born in the same calendar year play in the same league. But wait. What if you were born on January 1st? You play in the same league as someone born on Dec 31st, someone who is almost a full year younger. A year when you are 30 is no big thing, a year when you are 5 or 6 is huge, and it represents 20% of your life already. Naturally the kids born earlier are going to be slightly bigger and stronger as they are slightly more physically mature. These kids are singled out as being “better” as they look better compared to the much younger counterparts. This slight advantage means they get more playing time and more attention, which just makes them better. It is a virtuous cycle. This small seemingly insignificant fact like birthdates has ripple effects that factor in for years as the same pattern holds true all the way to the top ranks of hockey. Crazy huh?
He looks at their success of these outliers through the lens of other unknowns who seem to be blessed with similar talent yet somehow did not become wildly successful as Gates or Oppenheimer. In the end he concludes that outliers’ successes are very much correlated to things external to themselves. Sure, these people might be successful, but would they be true outliers. He shows that to be a technology giant in today’s world you needed to be born in 1954 or 1955 and that you stood a much better chance to be a successful NY lawyer if you grew up in a Jewish family from the Garment District and were born in 1930. Now mind you, he is not saying these people were successful solely because of these quirks in circumstance. He is not saying all Jewish kids born in NYC will be successful lawyers. He is simply stating that there are certain facts and circumstances that must be present for someone to be a true outlier.

He spends the second half of the book exploring ideas about culture and how the contribute to the failures and success of its people. There is an explanation on why Korean and Columbian airlines had such horrific air traffic safety records for decades (pilots defer too much to their superiors in their cultures). There is an explanation about why Chinese are so good at Math (and no, it is not just because we are smarter than everyone else). One of the most interesting conclusions is given near the end of the book. He looks at education levels among poor and rich kids. It is no secret that rich kids do better on standardized tests than poor kids but the reason he draws may surprise you. He concludes that we do not have an education problem. We actually may have a vacation problem. Rich kids never stop learning. There is always camp, a parent, or a book lying around the house for them to engage in over the summer. Not so for poor kids who may get a good vacation but come back to school behind their rich counterparts who spent the summer learning. What should we do about this? Year round school!

To sum it up, Outliers tries to show that success is actually pretty predictable. When you combine hard work with the right circumstance, you have a recipe for success. It is not just about having the most talent or random luck. It is about a gift people are given when opportunities present themselves and they have the strength to grab hold of it. He concludes the book by wondering what would happen if the same types of opportunities were given to everyone. If we understand which opportunities are needed for success, and gave these opportunities for all, would the outcome not become greater success for all?
Overall, I enjoyed the book. I think Gladwell tends to oversimplify a lot of issues but it is necessary in this type of book to keep it enjoyable. Usually his ideas follow mine, which make the reading more enjoyable and easier to write about. I agree wholeheartedly that success is determined by the confluence of hard work and the right circumstances. Anyone looking for a book that is a light read on a subject that is fairly interesting, I recommend picking this one up.

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