Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin Books 2008)
Rating and Recommendation
9/10 – This has quickly become my favourite read of 2019 so far. I definitely recommend it. I think there is something for everyone in Outliers.
…success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed…Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.pg 267
You may already be familiar with the name Malcolm Gladwell. If you aren’t yet, I am very happy to introduce you to this reporter, New York Times best-selling author, podcast host/producer and speaker.
Malcolm Gladwell is an established storyteller; his journalistic work can be found in The Washington Post and The New Yorker. He once gave a TED Talk on spaghetti sauce and whilst it was, at its heart, a story about spaghetti sauce, it was about much more than just spaghetti sauce. As I will explain in this review, it is his skill of unravelling a story’s insights – and making the audience part of this journey – that makes his work so engaging. It’s how a story that starts with spaghetti sauce ends as a life lesson about the happiness we humans derive from diversity and choice.
Recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s focus has been on producing and hosting podcasts through his company, Pushkin Industries. His podcast series Revisionist History is one of my top recommendations for anyone looking for a high-quality podcast to add to their library. (I’d suggest you start with the episodes, “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” and “Burden of Proof”)
So, after becoming a fan of his style through Revisionist History, I decided to check out the work he initially became known for – his writing. I began with Outliers.
Outliers delivers what it says on its cover: It is about the story of success. Rather than being one continuous story, however, it comprises several stories that serve as case studies. In its two parts, it explores cases of people and organisations that have been particularly successful as well as cases of significant failures.
We are presented with both familiar and unfamiliar stories, ranging from birthdates in the Canadian Hockey League and the 1997 Korean Air plane crash to the lives of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. He even gives his interpretation of why Asians are so good at maths. I know – I was also incredibly sceptical when I reached this chapter. But by the end of it, I wanted to dig deeper into the ideas behind it because it was a fascinating argument.
What I really enjoyed about Outliers was that there was no way to predict the story that would come next. Reading each chapter was a real learning experience. There was something new to discover even with the stories and characters that we’re all familiar with, such as how Bill Gates came to create Microsoft.
Malcolm Gladwell is not the first writer to try to distil the drivers of success. But what’s different about his story of success is that he doesn’t focus on the individual successful person – their personality, habits and traits. Instead, he looks at the larger picture.
He urges us to move away from an individualistic frame of reference for success and to recognise that factors such as where people come from, who they come from, and when they come from can be pivotal in determining someone’s trajectory for success.
Culture, societal power structures, ancestry – all of these elements can be just as important for success as individual work ethic. Timing can also be crucial.
By pointing out that success isn’t always down to an individual’s own infallible grind and grit, and that context is also key, he makes a compelling case for creating a society that appreciates this and responds by creating contexts with opportunities for all people.
We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?pg 268
I had a similar experience reading Outliers as with The Power of Habit. There was a thread running throughout the book, and I appreciated how Malcolm Gladwell drew links between the stories and analytical points. In this way, it all seemed to reinforce itself.
I also never felt lost whilst reading. There was never a moment where I asked: “what’s the point?”. With each story, I felt guided through the lesson being taught and I was never bored. More than that, I can honestly say I was enthralled.
Actually, I read another book earlier this year – Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey – that presented itself in a similar style to Outliers. In Hyperfocus, Chris Bailey gave an analysis and explanation of research conducted by scholars on the topic of attention management. Whilst I enjoyed it, I wasn’t left feeling particularly intellectually stimulated. I realise now that one reason for this was because Hyperfocus didn’t have the creative spark that Outliers has. Malcolm Gladwell’s strengths in storytelling and unique analysis help to set Outliers apart from other books.
There are two reasons why I didn’t give Outliers a full 10 out of 10. The first is because of a critique that I give to any research, i.e. it’s a critique that isn’t specific to this book. The stories featured in Outliers are case studies, and whilst I think many insights can come from case studies, a single case study can’t account for an entire phenomenon.
Secondly, other scholars and writers have critiqued the “10,000-hour rule” that this book made popular. The 10,000-hour rule is that it takes this amount of time for anyone to develop the kind of outstanding skill that places them far above others. It has come to light, however, that what matters for success isn’t just the amount of time that you practice, but the quality of your practice. Deliberate practice is more powerful than 10,000 hours of practice, especially if those hours don’t involve any activities that really stretch your existing capabilities.
Nevertheless, I am inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s skill of taking a story and crafting the narrative in a way that distils lessons that others have missed and synthesises knowledge in an accessible and engaging way.
Outliers is now 11 years old and some of the ideas in it have been refined over the years. But in 2019, as in 2008, it still convincingly gives us a different model for thinking about success. Through Outliers we can be encouraged to ask different questions when we see someone outperforming others; questions that go beyond the individual person to uncover the context that makes up their full story of success.
In a nutshell…
Outliers is a work of captivating storytelling and compelling argument. It is a collection of stories threaded together with intricate analysis, packed with lessons, and told so eloquently that each lesson will inspire you to think differently about your own story of success, as well as those of others.
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