Monday, October 15, 2012

Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell


Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Date Published: November, 2008 (Hardcover)

Pages: 336 (Trade Paper)

“Outliers are those who have been given opportunities –
And have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
-          Malcolm Gladwell

     Malcolm Gladwell is a former business and science reporter for “The Washington Post” and is now a staff writer for “The New Yorker” magazine.  He has written many best-sellers including The Tipping Point and Blink.  He uses counter-intuitive logic to take new and different looks at our world and how humans interact.  In Outliers Gladwell uses both well-known and obscure stories to explain why certain individuals are super successful or become “outliers” – that is their performance deviates greatly from their cohort.
        In the opening chapters the author explains that sociologists feel that success is a result of what they call The Matthews Effect or “accumulative advantage.”  Most folks would feel that the biggest advantage a child could have would be being blessed with above average intelligence or ability. Gladwell contends that IQ is just a threshold and that “practical intelligence” (knowing how to say the right things, what’s appropriate behavior in certain situations, etc…) is just as important.  There are many other factors in play which determine if an individual is to become and “outlier”.  He uses the Canadian National Hockey team as an example of the advantage of birth date.  Because the cutoff birthday for the select youth hockey teams is arbitrarily set at January first, the teams tend to be stacked with kids born in the first few months of each year.  These kids are bigger and more physically mature than children born later in the year in their same grade level.  The players on the select teams then receive better coaching, play more games and eventually become the elite players that go on to receive college scholarships and even play professionally.  Gladwell backs up this contention with real data from the Canadian National Hockey team and the National Hockey League, showing that most of the players have birthdays in January, February or March!
     Gladwell then goes on to explain what he calls the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule.”  He contends that in order to perform any skill at the highest “outlier” level, an individual must practice his craft for at least ten thousand hours.  He notes how hard that is to accomplish, not only from a personal commitment standpoint, but also from an opportunity level.  Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time for those ten thousand hours to be attainable.  He uses two examples of this rule coming into play.  The first is Bill Gates, who happened to go to a high school where a “personal computer station” was available  and through family connections was able to access computers at the University of Washington to further hone his passion for software design.  By the time he was a young adult he had his ten thousand hours of computer experience under his belt when none of his contemporaries came even close.  Another fascinating example of this the author uses is The Beatles.  In the late 1950s The Beatles were just one of hundreds of young British bands playing clubs and getting by.  They were hired to play bars in the red light district of Hamburg where they were forced to play eight to ten hours a day, seven days per week.  After several stays in Hamburg, The Beatles had their ten thousand performance hours and rose above their contemporaries in their ability and stage presence.
     The author does not neglect the influence of cultural and socio-economic class difference.  He notes that there are different parenting approaches to education.  He expounds on the fact that middle and upper class parents practice a style of “concerned cultivation” of their children, generally being very involved in the child’s education and often extending the learning process at home.  The poorer class tends to utilize a style of “accomplishment of natural growth”, tending to leave the education of their children to the schools themselves and being more “hands off” in their approach.   
     Gladwell uses the last half of the book to delve into the factor of cultural influence.  He studies a group of Jewish lawyers who were all born in the era of The Great Depression.  Their parents were all immigrants with strong work ethic who worked exceedingly hard to succeed in the garment industry in New York.  These young men did not have the cultural advantages of their non-Jewish peers, went to lesser law schools (being denied admission to the Ivies because of their ethnicity and religion) and took work that the bigger established firms felt were beneath them.  This work involved corporate mergers and take overs, work the larger firms wouldn’t touch.  Along came the 1970s when these men were approaching their most productive years and the laws changed and corporate work became very important and lucrative.  These lawyers were in the position of having the most experience and over the next several decades prospered greatly, becoming the legal “outliers” of their generation.  Gladwell notes that these men were indeed lucky AND they helped themselves through the rigid work ethic they learned from observing their parents.  “Luck is winning the lottery.  They were given an opportunity and they seized it.”

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