Book Review: Outliers
Posted February 8, 2013on:
Like Gladwell’s other books, Blink and The Tipping Point, Outliers is a phenomenological analysis of a particular human experience. In The Tipping Point, it was the phenomena of sudden shifts in public opinion, popularity, and perception. In Blink, it was human ability to make accurate, instant decisions. Outliers looks at the phenomena of genius and success. What makes some individuals excel so far beyond the rest of their communities? What is unique about their individual selves or their communities that allows them such great success?
Outliers, again like Gladwell’s other books, has been wildly successful, and the ideas it contains well-circulated in the few years since the book was published. It has gained a wide audience among anxious and ambitious parents in the upper-middle class. Parents at my son’s preschool discussed the advantage of being born in January, and whether they should wait to start their children in elementary school to give them an advantage—all based on Gladwell’s chapter on the Matthew effect, looking at the impact of birth month on Canadian hockey players. A mom started her child’s violin lessons at age 3, based on Gladwell’s chapter on the 10,000 hour rule, in which expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice. The sooner you reach those hours, the more ready you are to seize an opportunity for your expertise to shine. Gladwell’s analysis of Christopher Langan has been seen as a cautionary tale for parents of young gifted children about the importance of parents in pushing them into success. Langan has an enormous IQ and little to show for it, compared to stars with lesser IQ. Gladwell argues that his lack of social and familial support have made it difficult for him to make use of the gift of his intellect.
What I had not heard other people discuss are the later chapters, which explore the complex confluence of luck, cultural wisdom (or cultural blindness), natural ability, practice and grit that combine to make someone an outlier. His chapters on airline pilots’ communication styles, the cultivation of rice paddies and math skills, the success of Jewish lawyers and violence in Harlan, Kentucky point to things that are beyond our control—wider webs of social, linguistic and cultural patterns that shape us to be successful in some ways and not in others. These are the things that we cannot control, or at least not easily. These are the things that over-anxious, over-ambitious parents do not like to discuss.
Gladwell’s book shows that success in this life has no single cause. It is a coming together of luck, preparation, hard work, grit, social and cultural wisdom, and timing. Are there things we can do to be more successful or help our children be more successful? Of course. Can we create stunningly successful outliers? No–unless we happen to be at the right place at the right time.
I find Gladwell interesting, insightful and entertaining, and I recommend him to you in that spirit. If you are looking for self-help, parenting advice or secrets of the universe, look elsewhere.