Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success

In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers"--the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that...

Title:Outliers: The Story of Success
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Outliers: The Story of Success Reviews

  • David

    Malcolm Gladwell's new book reads like a series of cocktail-party anecdotes. Whether the book is a mere fluff piece or something more is open to debate. At its heart, it has two themes: (1) That success depends not just on talent but opportunity, and (2) that success (and failure) also depend on the cultural legacies we inherit from our forebears. Boiled down, here are his essential ideas:

    OPPORTUNITY

    1. Luck matters. Hockey players who happened to be born between January and March were disproport

    Malcolm Gladwell's new book reads like a series of cocktail-party anecdotes. Whether the book is a mere fluff piece or something more is open to debate. At its heart, it has two themes: (1) That success depends not just on talent but opportunity, and (2) that success (and failure) also depend on the cultural legacies we inherit from our forebears. Boiled down, here are his essential ideas:

    OPPORTUNITY

    1. Luck matters. Hockey players who happened to be born between January and March were disproportionately represented in professional hockey leagues. From an early age, these players were the oldest in their age bracket, and therefore bigger and more coordinated. Coaches selected them for better training and playing opportunities, and overtime, success bred success. Likewise, students who happened to be older for their class scored higher on math and science tests than their younger classmates, and were more likely to be picked for "gifted" and other advanced programs.

    2. Even smart people need 10,000 hours of practice before they master a skill. Those that can get those 10,000 hours during childhood are a step ahead. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and The Beatles all had unique opportunities to have lots and lots of practice in their specialties at an early age before becoming successful.

    3. After 120, increases in IQ are less important than creativity and "practical intelligence" -- knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect. A lifelong study of geniuses showed they were no more successful than the average population. Nobel laureates are just as likely to come from City College of NY, Augsburg College, or Gettysburg College as they are from Harvard.

    LEGACY

    4. Rural Americans in backcountry states -- Kentucky, Tennessee, North & South Carolina -- inherited a "culture of honor" from their Scotch-Irish forefathers. These herdsmen warriors brought with them a willingness to fight in response to the smallest slight. This led to a pattern of bloody and violent feuds between families across the Appalachian states. (Think Hatfields vs. McCoys.)

    5. Korean Airlines had an unusually high rate of plane crashes because of the Korean culture's extreme deference to superiors. Junior pilots were reluctant to directly contradict their Captain on a flight, even in the face of grave error. This explains, for instance, the Korean Air Flight 801 crash in Guam in 1997. When the airline hired a specialist from Delta to retrain the pilots to speak more transparently, their safety record went up dramatically.

    6. Asians are good at math and science because their ancestors planted rice paddies. Rice farming was more labor intensive than Western agriculture. Asians have inherited this stick-with-it-ness that allows them to excel in math and science, where perseverance is mandatory.

    7. Unlike rice paddies, wheat or corn fields need to be left fallow every few years. Early American educators adopted this principle toward schooling - that students must not be exhausted. Hence, the long summer vacation, a distinctly American legacy. But this legacy is counterproductive, because kids tend to forget things over the summer. Kids who go to schools with shorter summer breaks tend to have higher test scores.

  • Jonathan

    Here's what I

    earlier. I have to admit to the more I think and talk about the book, the less I think of it. It all seems too superficial.

    A pretty interesting book, albeit with not quite as many "knock me over with a feather" moments as

    . It starts off with a bang, as he discusses amateur hockey teams and how it was noticed that virtually all the players on an Under-18 hockey team came from the first three months of the year. Turns out the age cutoff is January 1 in Canada, so the olde

    Here's what I

    earlier. I have to admit to the more I think and talk about the book, the less I think of it. It all seems too superficial.

    A pretty interesting book, albeit with not quite as many "knock me over with a feather" moments as

    . It starts off with a bang, as he discusses amateur hockey teams and how it was noticed that virtually all the players on an Under-18 hockey team came from the first three months of the year. Turns out the age cutoff is January 1 in Canada, so the older players (those born early in the year) advanced further due to their slight maturity advantage which continued to multiply, as they got better training, put on better teams etc.

    This subject hits close to home, as I am a soccer coach and heavily involved in my daughter's soccer league. My oldest has a birthday at the worst possible time, just a few weeks before the cutoff date, while the younger one has a birthday the month after the cutoff date. So far, it hasn't seemed to slow the older one's progress, but it is something I will certainly keep an eye on. Gladwell's suggestion is to have multiple cutoff dates, so other ages can play against others of the same age. Doesn't seem likely though.

    He also explores how the timing of your interests can really change things. Something as simple as how available computer time was to early pioneers like Bill Gates and Bill Joy. Certainly, in the late 60s and early 70s, the amount of keyboard time these guys had pales in comparison to what would be available just a few years before that. He also talks about a major law firm in New York that benefited from getting the kinds of financial cases the other law firms wouldn't deal with, only to explode in popularity as the money days of the 80s and 90s struck.

    I thought the book felt like it suffered from data mining, in that there didn't seem to be enough exploration of other equally successful groups that may not have had the same advantages. But still a fascinating look at what kinds of thing influence success, whether we think about them or not.

  • Rebecca

    Gladwell argues that success is tightly married to opportunity and time on task. He states that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master something and that gives me comfort. It helps me feel better about my many failures at initial attempts to master things (like glazing pottery, algebra, Salsa dancing, skiing and sewing... to name a few). I kept thinking, "I've just got to put in more hours if I want to do better."

    While I can see a different way of spinning the data provided to support Gl

    Gladwell argues that success is tightly married to opportunity and time on task. He states that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master something and that gives me comfort. It helps me feel better about my many failures at initial attempts to master things (like glazing pottery, algebra, Salsa dancing, skiing and sewing... to name a few). I kept thinking, "I've just got to put in more hours if I want to do better."

    While I can see a different way of spinning the data provided to support Gladwell's argument, I didn't care. In a rare moment, I found myself not wanting to argue. : ) Instead, I found myself reflecting on things that have felt like lucky opportunities in my own life. This reflection was very humbling.

    Moreover, I felt the text tugging at the need for greater equity. What could all the people with limited opportunities do if given greater opportunities? Think Darfur. How many people who might have come up with the cure for pancreatic cancer been forced to spend their time standing in lines waiting for clean water or food?

    My own personal experience as a teacher of refugees reflects Gladwell's primary thesis. Many of my refugee students are pre-literate. They have not been given the opportunity to gain a formal education. As a result, there are many well-intended, but misinformed people who place these students in special education courses or deem their I.Q. low, diminishing their opportunities even more.

    The students I teach are hungry for skills and spend hours outside of class practicing. They make huge gains despite earlier opportunities denied them. While many will not go on to big colleges out of high school, I feel like given enough opportunity and time they could make it there. Sadly, many have families who depend on them to work to help financially support the family. (Yet, another limited opportunity to spend time focused on developing skills.)

    In the past week, I have shared Gladwell's thesis with my students. We have applied the 10,000 hours to master a task to reading and writing. I remind students that if we don't get our 10,000 hours this year together, they must continue on their own. I remind them that it IS possible to move forward if they are focused and keep adding hours of work to their reading and writing. We even write on the board how many hours left before we are masters.

    "2 hours down, only 9,998 left to go."

    Friday, I had a student from Somalia smile and ask, "So it's not true that white people are smarter than black Africans? They just get more chances to read?" Imagine my pleasure when I could respond, "YES! That's correct. You are just as smart as any white kid in this school. It's just that some of them have been reading for years and you are just getting started."

    Thank you for your work Galdwell, it is salient in today's political conversation surrounding education (especially for our most vulnerable students who have been given the fewest opportunities).

  • Steve

    Occasionally insightful, but Gladwell's science is pretty junky. His reasons for success change by the page. And he cherry-picks examples to exactly fit the scheme under consideration. Plus, he's obsessed with callbacks and summary statements that only showcase the faulty connections between ideas.

  • Eric

    I can save you the trouble of reading the book: smart people don't automatically become successful, they do so because they got lucky. This rule applies to everyone including the likes of Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimer. That's it. That's what the whole book is about. Gladwell looks at case after case of this: Canadian hockey players, Korean airline pilots, poor kids in the Bronx, Jewish lawyers, etc... Even with all this evidence it feels like he's pulling in examples that fit his theory and

    I can save you the trouble of reading the book: smart people don't automatically become successful, they do so because they got lucky. This rule applies to everyone including the likes of Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimer. That's it. That's what the whole book is about. Gladwell looks at case after case of this: Canadian hockey players, Korean airline pilots, poor kids in the Bronx, Jewish lawyers, etc... Even with all this evidence it feels like he's pulling in examples that fit his theory and ignoring others. Thus while we look at many examples of geniuses who got lucky we do not look at Einstein which seems strange as he's the best known genius of the 20th century. While the book can be summarized in one sentence, the individual chapters are interesting such as the chapter that discusses a plane crash that happened in New York because the pilots were too subservient to make it clear to the air traffic controllers that they were almost out of gas. In short, the parts of this book were more interesting then the whole.

  • Allie

    Didn't exactly read this book - Joe and I listened to it in the car on the way home from visiting family for Christmas. I really enjoyed it, and was very fascinated by certain parts of it, especially the sections about the Beatles, computer programmers and Korean co-pilots.

    But my enjoyment of the book was marred by the glaring absence of any well-known female "outliers." By chapter four or so, I noticed it and mentioned it to Joe, and then it just kept getting worse to the point that it was comi

    Didn't exactly read this book - Joe and I listened to it in the car on the way home from visiting family for Christmas. I really enjoyed it, and was very fascinated by certain parts of it, especially the sections about the Beatles, computer programmers and Korean co-pilots.

    But my enjoyment of the book was marred by the glaring absence of any well-known female "outliers." By chapter four or so, I noticed it and mentioned it to Joe, and then it just kept getting worse to the point that it was comical and distracting. Man after man after high-achieving man was featured. Any time a woman was mentioned, it seemed she was a wife or mother helping to boost a high achiever to success - or, in one case toward the end of the book, a somewhat slow female math student that a male professor had videotaped trying to figure out a math problem. By the time we got to that vignette, it was so ridiculous that Joe and I both started laughing, and Joe joked that "the only woman in the book is dumb - but persistent."

    When we got home, I Googled "Gladwell Outliers sexist" or something like that and found that several female bloggers and columnists also were ticked off about it and had taken Gladwell to task for it. Gladwell doesn't strike me as a raging sexist, so my guess is that he is so used to being a male in this world and constantly hearing about and identifying with male high achievers that maybe he didn't even realize what he was doing. I noticed that he gave a pretty weak response when questioned in an interview about his omission of women - he claimed that he had not omitted women because he mentioned his grandmother's story at the end of the book, in the epilogue, I think. Um, okay.

  • Adam

    People are criticizing this book because it is not a journal article. Well guess what: we're not all sociologists. I have read plenty of journal articles in my own field (law). I'm in no position to read journal articles in fields outside my own. Having a well-written piece of mass-market writing is just the thing I need to access this information.

    Another criticism of the book is that Gladwell is the "master of the anecdote." Well, it seems to me that ALL SOCIAL SCIENCE is in some sense anecdota

    People are criticizing this book because it is not a journal article. Well guess what: we're not all sociologists. I have read plenty of journal articles in my own field (law). I'm in no position to read journal articles in fields outside my own. Having a well-written piece of mass-market writing is just the thing I need to access this information.

    Another criticism of the book is that Gladwell is the "master of the anecdote." Well, it seems to me that ALL SOCIAL SCIENCE is in some sense anecdotal. Every survey (even a methodologically perfect one) is necessarily un-abstract and anecdotal: it is based on survey research from particular people, and there's no way to derive abstract rules governing society from that like math. This notion of how Gladwell is all anecdotal bothers me. So what? If a good anecdote gets you to look at a situation in a new way or makes a powerful point, that's excellent! Any writer worth his or her salt LOVES a good anecdote to grab the attention of the reader.

  • Trevor

    I know, you don’t think you have the time and there are other and more important books to read at the moment, but be warned, you do need to read this book.

    There are a number of ways I can tell a book will be good; one of those ways is if Graham has recommended it to me (how am I going to cope without our lunches together, mate?). And there is basically one way for me to I know that I’ve really enjoyed a book, and that is if I keep telling people about it over and over again. Well, not since

    I know, you don’t think you have the time and there are other and more important books to read at the moment, but be warned, you do need to read this book.

    There are a number of ways I can tell a book will be good; one of those ways is if Graham has recommended it to me (how am I going to cope without our lunches together, mate?). And there is basically one way for me to I know that I’ve really enjoyed a book, and that is if I keep telling people about it over and over again. Well, not since

    (also recommended to me by Graham) have I gone on and on about a book to people. First to Ruth over lunch, then to mum on the phone, and then the kids after they had just gotten out of bed in the early hours of the afternoon – my poor children, I’ve told them virtually the entire book.

    Now it is your turn.

    As a culture we tend to believe that people who are successful (people like Mozart, Bill Gates, The Beatles) all are ‘self-made-men’ and have risen to the summit of achievement on the basis of some incredibly special power they have and that we do not. It is a comforting thought, in some ways. If we have not done as well we are hardly to blame, because we just didn’t have that certain something. We don’t have the thing that sets them people apart from the crowd. And in this cult of celebrity we even get a chance to live vicariously in the reflection of their glory. Perhaps we can never all be Lady Di, (at least, not in public) but we can all attempt suicide with a pate knife and get into colonic irrigation. John Safran talks somewhere about a guy he knows saying to him that the only reason John made it and he didn’t was because John was Jewish. John then talks about how much hard work he had to put in to becoming successful, none of which relied on the mythical leg up he would have gotten from some secret Jewish conspiracy.

    This book isn’t about Lady Di, but it is about a series of biographies of people who have become incredibly successful. The biographies are generally told twice. The first time in a way that confirms all our prejudices about self made men and then in a way that makes sense of the success in ways we may find much more uncomfortable. I really struggled with this book – I loved every minute of it, but I still felt remarkably challenged by it. It was very hard not to think of my own life while reading this book. And this did not make me feel comfortable.

    I guess we are all fairly predictable, and one of the things that makes us especially predictable is that we generally like to have our prejudices confirmed. We buy books that tell us over and over again what we already know and believe. The Left Behind series is just one such example, as are most self help books. And I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. But there is a much better sensation we can get from a book, although this is much more rare. It is when the person you are reading starts telling you the deeper reasons why your beliefs are valid and not just based on prejudice. I have always believed talent is another (although, less apparent and all too vague) word for hard work. I’ve also believed that we are products of a range of different variables too complex to know in any real detail. This book confirms those prejudices.

    First he talks about ice hockey and a fascinating fact about the birthdays of the best players. They are all born at around the same time of the year. It is as if there is a cut off date for when you will be a professional ice hockey player – and, in fact, there is. The short version is that if you are born on the wrong side of the date they use to group kids into age levels you are likely to be a year younger than the other kids you are playing ice hockey with and therefore a year smaller than them too. That is going to make them look like they are better players than you are – and they will be too. A year at 10 is a huge difference, a huge advantage. And then we compound that advantage, by giving the older kids more practice, more experience in games and then more experience and more practice until there is no way the kid who happened to be born on the wrong side of the cut off date has any chance of catching up.

    The point he makes strongly here and repeatedly in the first part of the book is that there are other factors to success that are more than just ‘natural ability’. In fact, he does not believe in ‘natural ability’ – only in effort and time. Essentially he shows that if you put in 10,000 hours on any task you will be highly proficient at that task. Innate ability does not exist and ability is actually a function of effort expended. This is both liberating and incredibly challenging. Liberating because success is related to the effort you put in (and I think you should believe that is true even if it isn’t – it is the myth of Sisyphus, the only way we can really cope with the world is to believe our efforts have meaning). Challenging, because ultimately we are responsible for our own success as we are directly responsible for how much effort we are prepared to put in.

    The second great theme of this book is that where you come from matters. The culture that we are from has a remarkable impact on the rest of our lives. For example, if you are from a working class background you are much less likely to approach life with an attitude of ‘entitlement’. When people in authority speak to you, you are probably less likely to question them. In fact, you might believe you should defer to them. You are probably more likely to believe rules exist for a reason and that rules can’t be changed and can’t be moved. People from the middle class are much more likely to see rules as things that can be shaped or changed or ignored to make their life more easy or rewarding. Having come from the working class, even a particularly radical end of it, I can still see aspects of this deference in my own character and this was perhaps the most challenging part of the book for me.

    The other challenging bit was the part about the Hatfields and McCoys. As a Northern Irish boy, even if I’m not as obsessed with ‘honour’ as I might have been, this does make sense of things I have wondered about for a long time. The solution might be a little too neat, but the Irish, particularly the Northern Irish, are far too likely to feuds that are intractable and recognising that that might have cultural roots beyond the excuse of religion is utterly fascinating to me.

    The lessons of this book can be put into a brief sentence: success depends on a series of cultural and other factors that are mostly beyond your control – however, the thing that is totally within your control about success is how much effort you put in. And the more effort you put in the more likely you will be successful. They are directly proportional and we should all praise work as the key thing that really makes us human.

    I loved this book. I noticed that Ginnie points to a pilot who disputes some of what Gladwell says about culture and plane crashes, but this is a minor point. His bigger point about culture and plane crashes still stands and is remarkable. If you have kids, read this book – it will give you hints on how to bring them up with perhaps a modest sense of entitlement – it could make all of the difference. Ginnie also has a link to an article with a photo of the man himself – I was saying to the kids yesterday that I would give a couple of toes to look nearly as cool as he does, but I think it would take more than just toes.

    Look, what can I say? Read this book, it is life altering. Well, maybe not life altering, but a delight nonetheless.

  • Bill  Kerwin

    When I think about Malcolm Gladwell, the first phrase that comes to mind is "less than meets the eye."

    At first glance, his work seems thoroughly researched, even visionary at times. Beginning with a few maverick, counter-intuitive insights, he often ends with an affirmation of consensus, but it is a consensus that has been broadened by investigation and enriched by nuance.

    On second look, however, I'm no longer sure any of this is true. What first appeared to be new insights are nothing but fami

    When I think about Malcolm Gladwell, the first phrase that comes to mind is "less than meets the eye."

    At first glance, his work seems thoroughly researched, even visionary at times. Beginning with a few maverick, counter-intuitive insights, he often ends with an affirmation of consensus, but it is a consensus that has been broadened by investigation and enriched by nuance.

    On second look, however, I'm no longer sure any of this is true. What first appeared to be new insights are nothing but familiar landmarks, previously unrecognizable because of the adoption of a deliberately mannered perspective; even the once apparent breadth and nuance now seem triumphs of language over logic, the apparent inevitability of his arguments an illusion conjured by the spell of his limpid prose.

    Take one small example from "Outliers." With a flurry of standardized test statistics, Gladwell makes the case that the traditional summer vacation--however rewarding it may be for the middle class--is just not working for the poor. (I'll concede the point, for the sake of argument, but any high school teacher will tell you how suspect conclusions drawn from such statistics can be.) He then presents a sustained anecdote about a successful all-year-round secondary school in a poor neighborhood. His conclusion? We should go to school year round.

    Sounds reasonable, right? But what about a more obvious solution: as a society we could decide to work together so that summer can be a learning experience for the poor by instituting a myriad of basketball camps, music camps, art camps, chess camps, traditional summer camps, etc., held at schools, community centers, and city parks, and staffed by college students, artists and teachers from the neighborhood.

    Gladwell often reminds me of the last panel of a Dilbert cartoon: two panels of plain-speaking criticism, followed by one panel of resignation. And no real insight, no real hope for the future.

  • Stephanie

    I read

    for a real-life book discussion at work. This was a highly engaging read that contained anecdotal information to come to some conclusion on how "outliers" became successful. Examples ranged from hockey to mathematics to computer programming.

    A compelling theory was made about how kids in public school are pegged to a learning lev

    I read

    for a real-life book discussion at work. This was a highly engaging read that contained anecdotal information to come to some conclusion on how "outliers" became successful. Examples ranged from hockey to mathematics to computer programming.

    A compelling theory was made about how kids in public school are pegged to a learning level at an age where maturity varies greatly among students and that selection enables success for the students assigned to the more advanced track. The kids who are identified as high-potential have more opportunities to practice and compete with peers of higher caliber which has a propensity to propel them farther along the success spectrum.

    Interesting stories included background on the Beatles and their 8 hour a day, 7 days a week gig in Hamburg, Germany before they became famous. Additionally, the concept of a cut-off date for qualification to play hockey or enter school and the statistics that back up success for the subjects more mature (based on the cut-off date) was eye opening.

    I recommend this book to readers of non-fiction, particularly to anyone who is interested in better understanding theories of success. The focus is on practice within the control of the individual combined with the opportunities that arise based on circumstance. I understand that

    's

    may be a read that counterbalances this one and will be seeking it out.


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