Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers”–the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?
His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.
“In the vast world of nonfiction writing, Malcolm Gladwell is as close to a singular talent as exists today…Outliers is a pleasure to read and leaves you mulling over its inventive theories for days afterward.”―David Leonhardt, New York Times Book Review
“The explosively entertaining Outliers might be Gladwell’s best and most useful work yet…There are both brilliant yarns and life lessons here: Outliers is riveting science, self-help, and entertainment, all in one book.”―Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly
“No other book I read this year combines such a distinctive prose style with truly thought-provoking content. Gladwell writes with a high degree of dazzle but at the same time remains as clear and direct as even Strunk or White could hope for.”―Atlanta Journal Constitution
Take-Aways // Tessa’s Top 5
- Success is somewhat of a gift. “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” There are many instances in the book of people being born at the right time. For example Hockey players born in the beginning months of the year tend to be more successful because they’re that much older and bigger than their classmates. The early success gets nurtured and the effects are cummulative.
- Culture plays a huge role in what we do and what we say. Gladwell talks about why many plane crashes were a result of communication trouble, due to culture differences. Sadly, many of these instances could have been avoided.
- Pronounciation of numbers in Chinese is relatively brief. Most numbers between 1 to 10 can be uttered in less than a quarter of a second in Chinese languages. In English it’s much longer. This is why Chinese people are able to more easily recite a 7 digit string of numbers than English-speakers. Gladwell argues that the increased speed of learning numbers for Chinese children allows them to excel faster and be better at subjects such as mathematics. A small difference like this can have a huge cummulative effect.
- Gladwell introduced to me the idea of “practical intelligence”, i.e. knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect. Different to analytical intelligence (tested by IQ) it is a big component to becoming successful.
- The history of your ancestors plays a big role on who you are. Cultural legacy, whether you know it or not, persists through generations.
The Matthew Effect
Gladwell begins by quoting a verse from the Bible that states that those who have will be given more while those who have not will lose that which they had. Throughout the chapter, Gladwell describes certain advantages sports players and children in school have simply because of their birth dates. They happened to be born in an advantageous part of the year, and that time of birth led them to have certain advantages that spiraled upwards from that point on.
Gladwell explains a rather unique statistic: of players in Canadian professional hockey leagues, 40% were born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September, and only 10% between October and December. The explanation for this unusual statistic is simple: in Canada, the cut-off birth date for trying out for hockey leagues is January 1st. So, if you turn ten on January 1, you are going to be a lot bigger, physically more mature, and more coordinated than a child who turns ten on December 31st. One year’s difference in adolescence makes a huge difference in a child’s ability and strength on the sports field. After noting this statistic, Gladwell then goes on to describe the spiral effect from that point on—the bigger kids will play better and then be scouted by better coaches for more competitive teams. On those competitive teams, the bigger kids will be given better coaches, more chances to play and practice, and games against other more competitive teams. From there, they are scouted into more elite teams, and it just gets better. From merely being born in the first part of the year, some children have an innate advantage that often has nothing to do with personal ability or work ethic. They are simply bigger and more coordinated because they are older; because of that, they are given advantages on better teams from the beginning, increasing their chances to improve their skills.
Gladwell compares this to many other facets of society. He mentions that a similar phenomenon occurs in European soccer and also in test scores in school systems. For the test scores, the older kids in the grade score higher than do the younger children. This is a statistic that is true from elementary school all the way up through college.
Based on all of these findings, Gladwell asserts that the way we look at success has often been defined by glorifying personal achievement, hard work, and innate talent; however, with findings like this, we need to take into account that sometimes people are more successful than others their age simply because they were born at an advantageous time.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
All great success stories have similarities, and one of them is that successful individuals spend a lot of time practicing and working on their craft. In fact, Gladwell cites studies and sociologists who claim that for an individual to become an expert in any skill, they need to spend about 10,000 hours practicing or working on it. Overwhelmingly, statistics show that all successful people in their fields had at least 10,000 hours of experience before they made it big.
Gladwell makes the point that to get 10,000 hours of practice, which usually takes a decade, you need a lot of luck and extraordinary circumstances. Bill Joy, a renowned computer programmer and pioneer for Internet technology, worked at the University of Michigan, which was one of the few places in the country at the time that was equipped with a computer lab that was capable of time sharing, an invention that allowed programming to go much faster. Additionally, Joy found a way to log hours in the lab for free. From then on, he was hooked and able to accomplish his 10,000 hours, an opportunity most people would not have had.
Gladwell describes the same phenomenon occurring with Bill Gates—a series of fortunate, very lucky events allowed Gates to gain 10,000 hours of practice at a very young age. Gladwell also describes The Beatles, who got a lucky break and were invited to play in Hamburg, where they spent seven days a week playing for 8 hours or more a day. It was through that experience that they gained the time needed to become a great band.
Gladwell also covers how combining skills with a certain period in history enables many to succeed. For example, most of the wealthiest Americans throughout history were born within the same time frame in the late 1800s, which allowed them to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution.
Gladwell’s assertion is that most people do not have the fortunate or lucky circumstances that allow them to pursue their passions in such dedicated time blocks. Many successful people share the similar story that because of circumstances, luck, and chance, they were able to spend time doing what they loved doing most, and that aided their ability to succeed.
The Trouble With Geniuses (Part 1)
Malcolm Gladwell describes the incredible genius of Christopher Langan, currently known as the smartest man in America. Langan has an IQ of 195. His genius makes him an outlier because he stands out so much in comparison to the rest of the world. However, has that genius helped Langan be successful in his life? Other than the celebrity it has garnered, has he done well? The interesting thing about Langan is that in traditional terms, he is not very successful. Despite being invited to speak on television and being interviewed a lot, he has not had any publications, has no college degree, and has not impacted the world of academia. He works on a ranch and lives a very low-profile life. Gladwell compares Langan to Einstein, who had an IQ of 130—still in the genius category. Both men were geniuses, but what led one man to succeed and not the other?
To answer part of the question, Gladwell summarizes the results of a long-term study done on intelligence by Lewis Terman, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in the early 1900s. He studied close to 1,500 students who had high IQs throughout their lifetimes. The results yield many interesting findings, one being that when it comes to intelligence, there tends to be a threshold; once you get past a certain level of intelligence, it does not really impact your success much. Instead, other factors—particularly creativity, the ability to think in innovative ways, and dealing well with change and unexpected factors—are what help people succeed.
To elaborate on what is called “the threshold effect of intelligence” in real life, Gladwell cites a study done of University of Michigan graduates. Through their affirmative action program, the university admits disadvantaged students who do not do as well in college classes and tend to have lower IQs. However, after they graduate and get a job, they are as every bit as successful as are their more privileged counterparts.
With Terman’s group of gifted students, in the end, only some of them succeeded; others did not. This shows that intelligence is nice, but when it comes to real-world success, intelligence only matters to a certain point. After that, other elements are also needed to help someone succeed. Gladwell reaffirms that even though we put a lot of emphasis on natural talent and genius when it comes to successful people, we often leave out the idea that success comes in part from intelligence and talent and in part from creativity and hard work.
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About the Author
Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996. He is the host of the podcast Revisionist History and the author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and What the Dog Saw. Prior to joining The New Yorker, he was a reporter at the Washington Post. Gladwell was born in England and grew up in rural Ontario. He now lives in New York.
Originally published: 18 November 2008
Pages: 304 pg. (A5)
Genre: Self-help book