Sunday, December 07, 2008

Book review: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

Why do certain people succeed? Why do some rise above others? What makes them, in effect, outliers, distant from the set of data they came from? These are the questions Malcolm Gladwell hopes to answer in his new book "Outliers: The Story of Success." Gladwell, the erudite New Yorker staff writer, has become familiar to many. His first two books, Tipping Point, and Blink, have sold nearly five million copies. They eloquently address complex pop-psychology topics while their creator became known as a writer of first talent, and an intellect with considerable ability to distill research.

By this criteria, "Outliers" does not disappoint. Gladwell weaves entertaining anecdotes along with research findings, while attempting to shed light on what makes people successful. His approach is something like this: if you are from Canada, and dream of becoming a professional hockey player, much will depend on the month you were born. With this beginning, Gladwell seems to have discovered that success owes as much to luck as it does to skill. He expounds on this point over the next 285 pages.

While a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read, I couldn't help but absorb Outliers with a sense of faux surprise. While it may be true that in America there persists the romantic idea that ability alone enables you climb the ladder, how many people really believe this, unless perhaps, you were born on top of the ladder already? The rest of us have all suffered under a supervisor who only had that position because that person was related to the owner of the company, or watched someone else get a chance to succeed because of some family connection. We all immediately recognize the injustice because we saw that they were on their way to outlierhood, while the rest of us cobbled along. Gladwell's genius, the thing he can do that we can't, is to articuatle this in a book you can consume over a weekend.

Outliers is billed as "the international bestselling guru's" answer to "the ultimate question: why are people successful?" Tipping Point are Blink more pedestrian in their topics. They deal with such issues as why Sesame Street was so good at teaching children to read, and how our initial impressions are often more accurate than we think. But in Outliers, Gladwell is looking into the phenomena of exceptional people. Gladwell himself is one of them, and the conclusions he uncovers seem to be much more illuminating to him than for the rest of us. He seems more interested in understanding (himself) than truely explaining (the point of the book). The book is highly entertaining, but not all that revealing. That it takes luck, opportunity along with determination and skill to become an outlier, should surprise almost no one.

A "sticky" issue, if I may borrow a term from Tipping Point, is determining who is an outlier. Or, perhaps more importantly, why more people should want to be outliers. People like Bill Gates, the Beatles, Ropert Oppenheimer assume an ultra-outlier status in the book. But lawyers, doctors and other professional careers are also addressed. Is the book about what gives rise to someone like Bill Gates? Or is it about how, hopefully, more people arrive at the upper class? The former topic is more compelling. The latter is more pragmatic. But Gladwell doesn't seem exactly sure which way he wants to go, however he definitely wants the conclusions to be applied so more people can become outliers.

This is noble, except that the lessons are nebulous and cherry-picked. Take the case of the Beatles, whose success was attributed to skill and hard work honed by hours of playing Hamburg. There were many British bands who also had skill, and also worked for thousands of hours, why did we not hear about all of them? Why only a select few? For every one successful rock band, even those given the same opportunities, thousands vanish without recognition. Why? Gladwell would probably simply attribute this to luck, but then who among us couldn't have concluded that or didn't already know that? And if it really does come down to luck, how can we hope to apply what Gladwell has uncovered, in order to make more outliers?

Would it make a difference if more people were given the opportunists to hone their skills? Sure. But for every outlier, there are those left behind. That is just the way it works. I suspect we would still only have one Bill Gates, no matter how many kids were given similar opportunities. He was simply more talented, and along the way he buried other businesses behind him. What makes Gates unique was that he played the game perfectly, dodged all the pitfalls, made all the right moves at the right time. Luck may have put him in position, but his acumen did the rest. As luck gave him the opportunities, he had to seize them in the right ways. That is what made him an outlier, and that would be a very compelling study.

Many have and will continue to enjoy Gladwell's books. With their now ubiquitous and pithy titles, it is not hard to envision an entire box set someday sitting on the mantle places of upper middle class homes across the country. Gladwell has created a brand. The topics are complex, the titles are short, and the books are somewhere in the middle. This is both a blessing and a curse. Gladwell has propelled himself into rarefied literary air, and he would be the first to admit that he got there, like any other outlier, by considerable skill, but also by a lot of luck. But his books, specifically this book, Outliers, run the risk of being too slick, too easy. Outliers, and its general assumptions, while correct, may not have the social impact Gladwell desires. The conclusions, the socialistic truth that no outlier succeeds alone, are valid more now than ever. Gladwell could easily have moved the debate in the right direction, but Outliers seems more interested in proving the author correct on another insight, than applying anything to the debate.

The book contains the assumption that, in a better world, more people would be outliers. I think what Gladwell means is that a better world would be a place where more people could hone their skills and find fulfillment. But these people would not necessarily be outliers. Outliers are rare. Even if the tide raises for us all, a few will always rise further, but why? The hard answer to that statistical anomaly is what we are really looking for here, but, in the end, figuring out what creates an outlier seems beyond even Gladwell. It is a huge, sprawling topic. It is like asking, what makes certain companies uber successful, while others fail. This is something business scientists will study forever because there is no one answer. There are a million factors, just as there are a million factors determining which human lives rise above the fray. The answer, like a twisted proverb, is found in everything. Outliers, in tow, says a little of everything, while not saying much.

Final grade: C. Individual stories and research samples are thought provoking. The sum and conclusion is less so.

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