Issue: 7.2 (January/February 2009)
Author: Marc Zeedar
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IN BRIEF Product Outliers: The Story of Success Author Malcolm Gladwell Publisher Hachette Book Group, Inc. Price $27.99 USD Contact Info http://www.hachettebookgroup.com Pros Lots of entertaining stories and examples; reads quickly. Cons I wouldn't recommend you read the "why airplanes crash" chapter while on a trip; end conclusion isn't particular revolutionary. Rating (1.0-5.0): 4.3
Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the ground-breaking book The Tipping Point, is back with more fascinating research with Outliers. Though the title's awkward, it's a term that refers to people (or events) outside the statistical norm. Gladwell focuses why some people are extraordinarily successful.
The main thing Gladwell attempts to do is break down the traditional assumption that success is entirely a product of innate talent. He shows that while some talent is necessary, success is really a factor of hard work, luck, and taking advantage of opportunities. For example, a brilliant young pianist without access to a piano at the right age won't gain the experience and practice necessary to become a success.
Gladwell writes about the "10,000 hour" rule: to become good a something -- music, art, computers, etc. -- requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. This is true any field. Ten thousand hours is roughly ten years at several hours per day. Practice does make perfect. The idea of an "overnight" success is nonsense. The Beatles honed their craft with months of eight-hour live sets in a club in Germany before they came to America and hit it big. Bill Gates had been programming computers for a decade before he dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft. Even a genius like Mozart, who started composing as a child, didn't actually create anything special until he was in his twenties.
That is fascinating, but Gladwell is even more interested in the ways subtle and unusual things influence success: things like when you were born, your historical culture, or your personality.
For instance, Gladwell tells the incredible story of the unknown "smartest man in the world" who, because of poor social skills, never achieved anything, and he compares his life to that of Robert Oppenheimer, who by all accounts was only an average scientist, but who had the ability and confidence to charm others and was able to get himself appointed as the leader of the Manhattan Project and even talked his way out of an attempted murder charge in college.
One of the most radical things Gladwell reveals is the significance of a person's birthdate. In sports it turns out that the vast majority of players are all born within a few months of each other. Why? Well that's because all youth sports have age cutoffs, so some of the kids are nearly a full year older than the others and thus are bigger and stronger and stand out. They then get more of the coach's attention, are put into special programs, and play more games. They get those 10,000 hours of practice long before their peers born at the wrong time of the year, and thus they are better players. Those same players then become professionals and same birthday bias shows up there as well.
Even in non-athletic careers your birthday can make a huge difference. For instance, major historical events like a war or economic depression can significantly change the path of a person's life and the opportunities they have available. The technology available when you were born is a huge advantage: Bill Gates succeeded in part because his private school had access to a computer (via timesharing).
Gladwell doesn't stop there: he also reveals how culture can cause airplane crashes and why Asians are good at math. It's not that Asians are smarter, but a lot to do with their culture of hard work (a telling Chinese proverb is "No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich") and because the Chinese language is optimized for math. (In Chinese, 37 is "three-tens-seven" -- so adding "two-tens-two" and coming up with "five-tens-nine" is easy.)
There's plenty more in the book: Gladwell shows how blood feuds in the American south are passed down via generations of culture, and he writes about the revolutionary KIPP school program which gives disadvantaged children the same success rate as those from wealthy school districts.
If you're in business or merely curious about society, Outliers will change your perspectives of success. It's not the most revolutionary conclusion (hard work and luck outweigh genius and innate talent), but the book's an excellent read, full of fascinating and entertaining stories that teach new insights. I recommend it.
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