Outliers; a Book Review

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of Blink and The Tipping Point, which I read a while back and enjoyed.  I love how his style is simple, straightforward and well researched.  The way he explains everything using stories from a human point of view instead of scientific statistics or case studies to drive a point is what makes me always go back for more. So back in November when I came across this Poptech video about what sepparates extraordinary people from ordinary people which was basically part of his book, I put Outliers on my “To Read” list.  The problem is that my list is long and being a busy mom, finding quiet time is always a challenge.  But I love reading and when I do find a good book, I wake up extra early or wait until my daughter has fallen asleep to enjoy it.  My sleep deprivation was so worth it, the book does not dissapoint.

Outlier is a scientific term used when something happens totally out of the ordinary and appears to have no obvious explanation.  It is when someone appears to have succeeded immensely without an obvious explanation where most people would have failed.  Instead of looking at the person’s personality, character and hard work, the author suggest looking deeper and farther into that person’s history, life and circumstances that might have helped created the spark to succeed.  Gladwell felt compelled to write the book to explain the phenomena of success

In the case of Outliers, the book grew out a frustration I found myself having with the way we explain the careers of really successful people. You know how you hear someone say of Bill Gates or some rock star or some other outlier—”they’re really smart,” or “they’re really ambitious?’ Well, I know lots of people who are really smart and really ambitious, and they aren’t worth 60 billion dollars. It struck me that our understanding of success was really crude—and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations.

The book is broken down into two parts; Part One: Opportunity and Part Two: Legacy.  Each describing different causes and routes to success.  The first part is about being in the right place at the right time and doing your part to succeed.  If you want to achieve greatness, the book claims, you don’t only have to work hard, but other factors help to give you a boost too.  Like for example because of cut off dates for hockey players in Canada, this gives players born in the earlier months of January a much better chance of playing because they will be larger and more physically mature than their counterparts born in December because in children, those months make a world of difference.  This does not mean that the player doesn’t still have to train really hard to make it into the major leagues, but his birth month has already given him an edge he did not really earn by himself.  As for hard work, Gladwell claims that 10,000 hours is  the magic number, it is the number of hours that differentiate between mediocre and excellence.  Musicians, athletes and even programmers who have trained, worked or performed more than 10,000 hours are usually amongst the greats because they have gone the extra mile in hard work.  All this is not really new, we already know that with lots of hard work and with a little bit of luck you can become a rock star in your field.  What was new to me was the fact that hard work could be measurable in hours and had a number attached to it too.  It also meant that luck was not 100% random.

I found Part Two even more interesting because it was more about human traits that are inherited from one generation to the next. You know how we always say that certain cultures have specific behavioral tendencies or traits.   Apparently this is something of a legacy that can be passed on from generation to generation.  It explains why Asians have always outperformed themselves in math while the rest of the world is slightly behind.  First, their number is system is different, the numbers are phonetically shorter, helping them have a longer number memory sequence.  In other words, their numbers are monosyllabic words, making it easier for them to remember longer number sequences than we do.  Fifty to them is five tens, which makes learning basic arithmetic much easier.  Beyond their numbering system, they have a culture of hard work because of a history of cultivating rice.  Rice?  What does rice have to do with math?  Unless you are counting rice it has nothing to do with rice.  But not according to Gladwell,  the way rice is cultivated is very work intensive and has taught the generations that hard work is the norm which is probably why to this day they work much harder than other cultures that were wheat growers for example.  A couple of days ago I read something somewhere about Chinese hairdressers going from door to door in Cairo to offer their services.  This is what I mean, they have a different work ethic than Egyptians for example, not necessarily because they are better people but because it has been ingrained in their very fiber of being to work really hard.

My favorite chapter was about high IQ in children and how it can be harnessed.  This is a personal issue for me as a parent because well just like every other parent out there we believe we can help our children become great.  What I did conclude from this chapter was that children who did succeed were the ones who came from families who’s parenting style was of concerted cultivation and helped children learn entitlement (positive not the negative type).  Children who are engaged and taught early on how to deal with life and have their own interests and pursuits and engage in lots of different activities are the ones who go one step further in life.

The book itself is the size of a small paperback which made it easy to hold in one hand and read in bed, which in my world is an awesome thing.

In conclusion, this is definitely a book I would recommend.  I would love to discuss this with anyone who has read it.

10 Comments

  • At 2009.10.08 16:21, loolt said:

    read it, loved it :)

    I think that concentrated cultivation only works if the parents know how to deal with other people, so that they can teach their children positive entitlement.

    • At 2009.10.10 21:21, jessyz said:

      Definitely true, but the assumption is that parents need to know how to do so many things already to be able to pass them on to their kids.

      • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by jessyz and Qwaider Planet. Qwaider Planet said: Chocolate Mints In a Jar:Outliers; a Book Review@http://bit.ly/V5SKE […]

        • At 2009.10.09 18:17, jaraad said:

          I also read Malcolm Gladwell’s previous two books and thats what made me read his third book “Outliers” which I really enjoyed. My best subjects were the 10,000 hours-rule, the ethnic theory of plane crashes, and the rice paddies.

          • At 2009.10.10 21:23, jessyz said:

            I loved them too. I also found the plane crash bit incredible, who would have imagined that. I also like the fact that he mentioned that 7 consecutive errors are needed to cause a plane crash.

            • At 2009.10.11 20:46, ze2red said:

              I started the “tipping point” a long time ago, and i wasn’t that interested in the book, so i put it aside.

              i might start re-reading it again, maybe i’ll change my mind about it and read also the outliers :)

              • At 2009.10.15 08:42, jessyz said:

                You should definitely read both. I found Outliers more interesting though than the Tipping point.

                • At 2009.10.16 11:03, ze2red said:

                  i’ll give it a shot after i finish the one i’m reaading

                  • At 2010.05.28 17:37, 7aki Fadi said:

                    Good review!

                    • At 2010.05.29 14:16, jessyz said:

                      Thank you. I am reading Feel the fear and do it anyway so that’s my next review isa.