Outliers: The Story of Success (2008)
I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell way back, but just wanted to briefly write about it. It’s a book that I’ve recommended to anyone who has asked me simply because it is so well-written. Gladwell could write three-hundred pages about dead fish and I’d probably still read it (actually that would be kind of interesting, curious about all the dead animals that have been cropping up— quick someone tell him).
The title of the book is to some degree misleading for anyone who may be seeking a self-help book or an inspirational book (better look at Tony Robbins for that). This book actually counters bootstrapping individualism prevalent in certain societies, notably the United States, by describing how structural elements in society can shape our lives.
The central thesis of the book is that while talent and dedicated practice are necessary for success, early advantage and privileged social standing are what truly make the outliers. The importance of legacy and opportunity for success is not really a new development and has in fact been around since at least 19th the century (some dude named Karl Marx wrote something about it), but what Gladwell does well is break down academic terms for the layman. The book begins very factually, focusing on how the birth months of professional Canadian hockey players gives them a demographic advantage. In the junior leagues players are picked on January-December basis, and players born earlier in the year are physically larger than other players. This means that the physical talent becomes concentrated in those born in between January to March, and creates a feedback loop in which kids born earlier in the year perform better, and consequently encouraged even more, reinforcing and even broadening the performance gap. Gladwell makes a strong case that these types of structural disadvantages can be mitigated if we take a different approach to the selection process.
I believe the strengths of Outliers are also its weaknesses. Gladwell’s background as a journalist enables him to string many stories and anecdotes together to reinforce his central thesis, he also reduces everything to the simplest terms and introduces very few new ideas outside the thesis. This makes the book very clear, concise and truly enjoyable to read. However, in simplifying concepts the book can be quite reductionist at times. In relating all the anecdotes and stories back to the central thesis, many of which don’t have the factual support that the ‘demographic advantage’ story does, the book can at times grasp at straws (the case of the Jewish New York lawyers comes to mind in particular) and suffers from a serious case of confirmation bias.
To conclude, Outliers is an enjoyable book, but by no means groundbreaking or academic. If you’re up for a book on the topic of performance that has been called groundbreaking, check out this 918-page treatise on expertise by Cambridge University (I still haven’t read it yet, need to get a hold of a copy).Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi