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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell Reviewed

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I don't read many books. In fact, I only read books when I'm on vacation. They are great for plane rides and relaxing by the beach. During the rest of the year, I prefer to read blogs and other information from the Internet. That is starting to change and it's all due to one man, Malcolm Gladwell. I probably wouldn't have read any of his books if I didn't run out of reading material on my vacation to Thailand. I wondered into a used bookstore store and found his first book The Tipping Point on sale for $5. My wife commented that she has never seen me as excited about reading a book.

The world works in mysterious ways. A couple of weeks after I returned from my trip I received an e-mail from the publisher of his most recent book. They offered to send me a free copy. Suckers! They just lost a sale. So I need to convince two readers to buy Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, so that they come ahead. Don't worry, I'm not keeping track.

What is Outliers about? It's a study of success. What does it take to be successful? How do you get to be the best of the best? Let's look at it chapter by chapter.

The Matthew Effect

Malcolm Gladwell doesn't usually give chapters the most logical names. In this case it's named after a passage, Matthew 25:29... something that I read roughly 12 times and can't figure out what it means. Fortunately, it doesn't matter to understand what Gladwell is trying to say. After reading enough of his books you realize his writing is usually the form of a story or study and a lesson that can be extrapoloated from that.

The first chapter focuses around the seemingly statistical anomaly that the best young Canadian hockey players are almost all born in January. You almost never find a top hockey player born in the last quarter of the year. The explanation turns out to be that that the age cut-off is December 31st. Someone born in January is going to have 10 months of development/practice more than someone born in October. The better players get extra coaching as they are seen as having the best chance at being a star someday. This has a snowball effect. The best players get grouped together in better leagues. The high-level of competition makes each player even better. Lesson: Timing can be critical to an outlier's success.

My thoughts: Think about it as it may relate to an educational system. It's pretty much the same way, right? I don't remember if Gladwell went down that road, but my mind did while ready this.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

This chapter depicts the life stories of some very successful people and how they got that way. Gladwell explains that the Beatles played 10,000 hours in Hamburg, Germany (watch Backbeat for a good movie about the Beatles at this time). He also explains that Bill Joy (founder of Sun Microsystems) and Bill Gates had put in their 10,000 hours of computer work as well. The perception is that they were born with some kind of gift. It's true that they were extremely talented, but most people ignore the fact that they had opportunity. Other bands may have been as talented as the Beatles, but they didn't have the clubs Hamburg that made them play all day. Other people may have had the talent of Joy and Gates, but access to computers in their time was extremely limited. Gladwell looks at some of the richest people in history and finds that they often clustered around a certain event. There's a cluster of richest people around the industrial revolution. There's another cluster of computer entrepenuers around people born in the mid 1955's. That put you on target to be age 20 when computers were just getting off the ground. Lesson: Outliers have the opportunity and put in the work to be the best of the best.

My thoughts: I'd rather not put in 10,000 of "work" to be the best. I have too many other things that I want to accomplish. Fortunately, I don't consider blogging to be "work." While I'm not quite at my 10,000 hours of blogging/writing, I'm probably upwords of 7,000. I'll be testing Gladwell soon.

The Trouble with Geniuses, Part I

Gladwell spends this chapter showing that a high IQ is not a ticket for a free ride on the success train. He goes to show that once you reach a certain IQ, you are just as likely as to be successful as someone with a much higher IQ score. There are other factors that may come into play, such as creativity. Give two children a test of how many ways a brick could be used and you'll find that even if they have the same IQ score, one may come up with a pile more uses than the other. Lesson: High intelligence as measured by IQ tests do not necessarily lead to success.

My thoughts: I guess I should stop carrying around my Mensa card from 2000. Perhaps this is why people exercise all parts of their brains. Note to self: pick up that guitar again.

The Trouble with Geniuses, Part II

In this chapter, Gladwell uses examples of two geniuses who grew up in vastly different environments. It's very anecdotal, one gets the feeling that the two people are chosen specifically because they are polar opposites. One can still see the point that one raised in wealth and opportunity is more likely to be successful than one raised in poverty. The other point this chapter pushed was that social skills may be the difference in success between two people of high intelligence. Of course social skills are often related to the environment in which one is raised. Lesson: If you want to be successful, be born to a wealthy family and work on your social skills.

My thoughts: None of this hits me as unusual or shocking like many of Gladwell other observations. This is the start of where the book begins to go downhill a little for me. However at this point, I've already deemed a great book and anything else I've learned is gravy.

The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

Joe Flom was a lawyer in New York City whose success started in the mid 1950s. The three lessons are:

  • Have the right culture - Flom was Jewish and Gladwell makes a strong argument that it played a role in getting him in the right place at the right time.
  • Have demographic luck - Being a lawyer in New York City in the mid 1950s presented one with an opportunity that a lawyer might not have in Bozeman, Montana in 1910.
  • Have the right family history - Gladwell shows that entrepenuers like clothing makers often had children that were lawyers and doctors.

My thoughts: I think this is very much a summary of points that were made previously. The importance of family history was covered in the past chapter. The importance of demographic luck was covered in the 10,000 rule with Bill Gates and Bill Joy. As for having the right culture, I think that overlaps the family history in quite a few ways.

Harlan, Kentucky

Remember the Hatfield and McCoys? That's the kind of culture that you have in Harlan, Kentucky. People have to fight to protect their land and income. If you don't defend yourself, someone will think you are weak and steal it. Even though this isn't the case today, the descendants of that kind of society still exhibit its traits. This is another example of how one is a product of demographics, culture, upbringing, etc. The only new thing this adds is that it persists for generations.

My thoughts: Overall this chapter was a little long to prove what seemed to be a simple point (unless I missed something). Gladwell doesn't always concern himself with solutions to some of the problems brought up by his findings. However, it would be nice to feel that your potential success doesn't rely on the environment of your great grandfather.

The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

It's the late 90's and Korean Airlines is in trouble - there are statistically far too many crashes. The planes are not of poor quality. It's the people and the process. It turns out that the Korean culture is that the person with higher authority should not be questioned. If a co-pilot sees a problem, he uses language that tends to point the pilot in the right direction, so that he can "think of it himself." Where an American co-pilot might say, "We are dangerously low on fuel", a Korean might have said something like, "This plane is flying light." The submissive nature in the Korean culture didn't allow for the balance check that co-pilot was supposed to provide. It would have been better if the co-pilot flew and the pilot directed him when he saw the need. Korean Airlines fixed the problem by changing the culture.

My thoughts: Overall I found this to be one of the strongest chapters in the book. I never new much about plane crashes. I thought they usually occured due to plane malfunction, but it seems to be human error most of the time. It was interesting to learn, once again, how culture can impact success - this way in a different way.

Rice Paddies and Math Tests

Is it a stereotype that Asians are good at math? Or is there something really behind it? It turns out that Asians are better at math. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, many Asian languages have short, single-syllable numbers that are regular in format. English has irregularities like "thirteen" and "twenty" that must be learned as exceptions. The other is that taking care of rice paddies requires incredible discipline and attention to detail. These are qualities that may impact math skills in a positive way.

Marita's Bargain

Like most of Malcolm Gladwell's work, this chapter tells a story to illustrate some particular insight. The finding here is that students from low and middle class families regress in what they've learned during the summer break. Children of upper-class families seem to retain the knowledge from the previous year. The difference seems to be that the upper-class families encourage their children to learn more in the summertime. There's piano classes and computer camp - things like that.

My thoughts: I've always heard that the brain is a muscle like any other. It need exercise. I'm not sure if brain tissue really counts as muscle (I'm not up on my anatomy), but I'm willing to overlook technical details. It is a very good insight and one that parents could pick up a lot from.

Epilogue

I didn't find much, if any value in the epilogue. A lot of it was how the author himself is a product of many of these outlier conditions. It didn't seem to bring anything new to the table. I would have much rather read a summary of all the discoveries in the book.

Final Thoughts

I think this is a very worthwhile book. It shows the value that timing and culture play in the development of all of us. It helps me understand that being in Silicon Valley may give me opportunities that being in Kansas doesn't. If we have children, we'll move to Canada and time them to be born in January so that they can be great hockey stars. (Wait that doesn't seem, right...) We'll think a little about school systems and try to have an older child so that he gets a better chance to be more developed and get into the better classes. We'll teach the child Chinese and make him/her work in rice paddies to encourage the highest of math skills. (Hmmm, again, something seems out of place there...) We'll encourage learning over the summer break. I have to admit that I don't know the first thing about parenting, but it really has the wheels turning in my head.

Last updated on January 23, 2009.

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17 Responses to “Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell Reviewed”

  1. Asav Patel says:

    Excellent review…….
    I like the 10,000 Rule. I am an Indian and in India Dhirubhai Ambani (Founder of Reliance Industries) was once upon a time said that, If you want to be Giant (Rich, Ultra-rich & Sucess) than you should work 10,000 hours a Day………
    Well, here the 10,000 rule is differnet from Dhirubhai’s but it is excellent.
    According to Dhirubhai you have to work 10,000 hours per day to become giant like him……
    So How one can do 10,000 hours a day work? Anyone can do hardly 10-15 hours a day work and more over the day is only of 24 hours.. So how is it possible?
    Well, it is possible by creating jobs and highering people under you…… If you higher 10,000 people under you than it means that you have worked 10,000 hours a day..
    So if you higher 10,000 writers for Lazy man & Money than you can do 10,000 hours a day work…
    This is the formula of becomeing a Giant Company……..!!!!!!
    Anyway…. I like ur post……..

  2. kosmo says:

    Interesting thought about IQs. It does make a lot of sense. Creativity isn’t effectively measured in most standardized test, and it is a big component of mental ability (mental ability = raw intellect + creativity + ???)

  3. Lazy Man says:

    In the book, there’s a pretty interesting example of a standardized test. How many way can you use a blanket? If you say to keep warm and that’s all you can come up with in two minutes, you may not be that creative. If you come up with keeping warm, putting out fires, making your hot water heater more efficient, etc… you may be more creative.

    I don’t know if anyone has put this into some kind of score.

  4. Chris says:

    I’ve read that book and it was great to see all the little things we can’t control that matter for our success. We can’t change our birthday, our parents or many other things that help lift people to the top.

    But we can work.

    Work is the one thing we *can* control in the whole equation, so we need to find what we love and dive in, because it won’t matter when we’re born or who our parents are if we don’t do the work. Here’s to 10,000 hours.

  5. Craig says:

    Good book and I thought it was a solid read, although not as good as his previous two. I understand his 10,000 hr rule, but don’t think it’s fully accurate. In that case, there would be so many “experts” out there. Also, and I know this is rare, but especially today you see more outliers who are younger, whether, sports or technology, writers, etc. They clearly have a lot of experience being young, but not sure if the 10,000 rule applies in all cases. What do others think?

  6. Jon says:

    Well, he’s taken the Matthew quote entirely out of context, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. In the context of the passage where it appears, it is saying that if you are responsible and diligent with the gifts you are given by God, you will be rewarded with bigger responsibilities. If not, you can lose it all.

    In the context of the book, it appears that he’s saying that those who are fortunate enough to have skills and talents, who are also placed in an environment with highly skilled people around them, will improve their performance.

  7. Lazy Man says:

    Craig, I think some of the young people put in there 10,000 hours as well. I don’t think Michael Jordan just picked up a basketball and was great. Yes, he had talent that probably less than 10 people in the world have, but he also developed that talent with lots of practice.

    I don’t think anyone who puts in 10,000 hours is an automatic success. I could put 10,000 hours into basketball and I wouldn’t make many high school teams. It’s a combination of having talent and putting in the work. Some people just assume that Bill Gates was smart and in the right place at the right time. Those are true, but he also put in the time to be able to write an operating system.

  8. Craig says:

    Lazy Man, I agree with that. I was more referring to the Lebron James, or Mark Zuckerbergs, kids who would outliers from before they could legally drink. I thought it was interesting, but not the best point in the book. The one that struck me most interesting was plane crashes from certain type of countries and how the dialogue had to be changed.

  9. kosmo says:

    Some of these athletes put in tons of hours training and practicing from a young age. I’m not sure if Lebron put in 10K hours from age 6 to 16 (at which point he was already an outlier), but it’s probably not far from the truth. That would be 20 hours/week – or 3 hours a day. Watch some of the “feel good” Olympic stories and start counting up the hours of practice …

    Bill Gates didn’t “write” an operating system. He bought the guts of it (QDOS) from another company. Just a clarification.

  10. thisisbeth says:

    Thanks for the review, because I put this book on my book list today. (Minnesota Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey mentioned it on his blog.)

    What I’ll find interesting in reading the book is how so many of these things seem to imply that much of it is based on luck–being born to the right family, being born in the right place, being born at the right time. There is definitely work involved, but some of it is luck about which we can do nothing. I’ll be interested to see if the book deals with ways to overcome bad luck.

  11. LOL.. Brains are like muscles consist of cells (brain cells they are) and like any cells they have an ability to multiply and grow and be more functional and handle their work load better if you use them regularly.

    There is a debate on how much of our brain cells we use every day. But what makes your brains really a better brains is the connections between each brain cell. There is a believe that each cell has an infinite capacity to make many more connections than each of us presently have. So, each of us potentially, much smarter than we are..

    In other words, the hardware is there, all we need is to add software, so to speak…. LOL..

  12. Lee says:

    FYI – the Matthew effect is a sociology term & the term is credited to Robert Merton. It comes from Matthew 25:29; “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” In essence, the rich get richer & the poor get poorer. Makes all the sense in the world given the subject matter of the chapter.

  13. theholder says:

    So far everything I’ve read of the comments herein are wrong about “The Matthew Effect”. The passage has been taken out of cotext to validate theories in modern sociological studies regarding class and status. If you would read the book of Matthew you would find that when you see the term “have” over and over, it is refering to faith. Think about it. Even Bernie Madoff with all his material possessions can have those taken away. Even his skills were taken for he has no means to exercise them where he’s going. But faith can never be taken and even if all your material resources are, you still have faith. Gladwell and Merton prove sophomoric in their uage. This and the rest of the internet are the sewer where dilluted ideas bread stupidy. I’m not a blogger but thought I would check to see what you people might say about this book and passage. I’ll reluctantly pick the book back up and finish it as I’m sure it contains some merit but as for chapter 1, pretty dissappointed.

  14. Annie says:

    No, brain cells can’t multiply, once they’re gone, they’re gone. Same with muscle cells, except, they can expand through strenuous usage. That’s why they want to develop stem cells, because it has the ability to differentiate into any type of cell. That way, we can replace cells that otherwise cannot be replaced by the body (i.e. brain cells).

  15. Leah says:

    thank you very much. this really helped me. I had a reading assignment but I was out of the country and the test was two days after I got back. Thank you very much again! I apreciate the work and the time/effort you put into this.

  16. Levi McPherson says:

    10 Lessons Learned from the Book:

    1. Be grateful for the opportunities that have helped create your success
    2. Don’t take everything on face value or oversimplify judgments
    3. If you want to change you results, look for opportunities that can be leveraged in unique ways
    4. Culture change is an Opportunity
    5. Meaningful work is the result of High Levels of Autonomy, Effort, and R.O.I.
    6. 10,000 hours of practice is a pre-requisite for mastery (it’s the ticket to the game)
    7. If you are going to put 10,000 hours in, make sure it aligns with the right opportunity (i.e. most American’s can claim well over 10,000 hours of practice at being entertained, but what results has this produced?)
    8. We need to work our children harder so they will have better “Opportunities” in the future
    9. The concepts of retirement and summer vacations need to be re-thought
    10. I need to talk my wife into forming an accelerated summer school program

  17. Mister Mister says:

    Great review/chapter summaries of Outliers. I also liked the last paragraph that you wrote haha, great way to wrap it up.

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