Review of “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - further reviews on Amazon

I have a feeling I may be about to break the code of conduct of the Royal Society of Book Reviewers (if they’d have me as a member) because I feel compelled to comment on Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers before I’ve even finished it.

Sloppy indeed. It’s just that it plays to all my prejudices. It’s one of those ‘a ha!’ moments where something you’ve suspected without a shred of evidence might actually have a grain of truth in it.

You remember Malcolm Gladwell?

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell on Amazon

The Tipping Point, a story about how there were a few ‘super communicators’ around who spread the news, a sort of codifcation of the ‘in crowd’ and the ‘out crowd’.

Sounded plausible but later I listened to a devastatingly nice rebuttal of the whole concept on NPR’s ‘On The Media’ podcast (Brooke and crew you’re so nice I sometimes gag in my iced coffee listening to you). The interviewee essentially said there was little evidence that there were a few super-connected types around who were somehow enormously influential.

In Outliers though, Gladwell looks at something close to my own mean-spirited heart, the concept that perhaps some of the super-successful were not especially gifted, instead a series of ‘outside’ forces came together to put them where they were. Something that Karl Marx would no doubt have agreed with, but Malcolm Gladwell’s angle is somewhat different.

To turn what is a very readable book into a 5 minute parlour sketch Gladwell argues that it is often historical accident or significant practice that makes someone successful. For instance it is ‘accident of birth’  that many top Canadian hockey players have birthdays around the beginning of the year because when they are ‘streamed’ into hockey teams at school the slightly older kids have an edge which then is widened as they receive special training. It is both accident and ‘practice’ that Bill Gates was succesful because he had access to rare computing resources (for that time) as a teenager and then spent thousands of hours programming. Gladwell also looks at why kids of ‘engaged’ parents (often from upper socioeconomic brackets) gain a sense of their own entitlement (and are more successful) where kids of ‘disengaged’ parents (often from lower socioeconomic brackets) tend to be less successful in negotiating obstacles in life.

Why this struck a chord with me though about Gladwell’s book is that you so often hear echoes of the alternative (‘everyone is equal’) around well-heeled dinner parties e.g. “well if those guys down the street struggling away just exercised a little initiative then they too could have what we’ve got.”

The problem is that there really are advantages that are given to many in our society which really are just accidents of birth or circumstance as Marx was keen to point out when he talked about ‘class struggle’.  Fred can take career risks because he’s got parental cash to fall back on, Maisy has a generally more positive outlook on life (which is often associated with success) because she has an upper middle class upbringing where basically she’s never had anything really awful happen to her, Andrew just happened to be the right place at the right time in technological cycle or economic cycle.

Yep, we’ll all like to think that our own status (modest or not) is a product of our own cleverness but sometimes it’s just dumb luck. If you don’t believe this (or even if you do) Gladwell’s book is worth a read.

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Article posted by @Drivelry on January 24, 2009

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