Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

by Mr. Cheap

I first heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” about a month ago and was delighted that he was putting out a new book. I was wildly enthusiastic about “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” and after reading an extract online I couldn’t wait. By a happy coincidence, a friend gave me an early Christmas gift, and it was Outliers!

In “Blink” Gladwell looked at very fast cognition (things your brain processes in the blink of an eye). In “The Tipping Point” he looked at what led to ideas propagating and spreading through society (why some take off and why some die). In this book he looks at incredibly successful people (they’re the outliers) and argues that there’s more behind their success than the myth society tells us about them (that they’re naturally brilliant & gifted).

As with all of Gladwell’s work, he’s a delight to read. He takes an interesting idea, chews away at it, and presents his thoughts, building a surprising, yet plausible, model around them. In “Freakanomics” they debunked one of the big ideas he argued for in “The Tipping Point”, so that’s the one danger of Gladwell’s work: he’s very persuasive, even when he’s wrong.

The idea behind this work is that people who are great at something (we’re talking world class talent) are great primarily because of the time they’ve invested, rather than an inherent ability. A certain threshold of “raw ability” is necessary (which is lower than you’d think), but beyond that it’s often luck whether they managed to accumulate the time required to become world-class. The time investment, he argues, that’s needed is 10,000 hours, and its often circumstance that determines whether someone who has the interest to invest that amount of time is also given the opportunity.

He gives examples supporting this from violinists at an elite Berlin music academy, Canadian hockey players, high-tech entrepreneurs, and the Beatles (apparently they’re some minstrels from England achieved a bit of fame a long time ago).

Following up on the lucky circumstances, he also builds the case that even a small lucky break early on compounds as someone who has shown an “early aptitude” is given more opportunities, which leads to an increase in aptitude, in a reinforcing cycle until they accumulate the hours to become good or extraordinary at something. He argues that the reason Chinese people are often good at math is because Mandarin has a cleaner, more regular syntax for naming numbers. This gives young Chinese students a leg up when they first start learning math, and they’re able to build on this lead (and have a positive first experience with the subject).

He presents counter examples of Lewis Terman’s study of high IQ students (they tracked the top 1% of the top 1%) in California, who didn’t really amount to much as a group (and even within the group, socio-economic status was a better indicator of success than their IQ). Terman’s study rejected two boys as not smart enough to participate who went on to win Nobel prizes.

The take-aways from the book were that if you want to be really good at something, you’ve got to put in the time (along with meeting SOME requirements, you’ll never play in the NBA if you 5’3). You’re fooling yourself if you think you’ll just naturally be world class at something. The trick is to keep practising, and the people who will excel are those who find the motivation to keep at it. If you want to excel in your profession, put in the time at the activities that are important to it. If you want to learn a new skill, put in the hours of study and practising. There’s no royal road to excellence.

I highly recommend putting this book on your Christmas (or Hanukkah, or winter’s solstice) list. Its a fun, fast read.

I kept wondering if he’d mention an age limit, but he didn’t, so maybe it’s still possible for me to get cracking on my 10,000 hours and win a gold metal in Olympic gymnastics!

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