What if I were to tell you that the most successful men and women were not so because they were the best and the brightest–that all of our favorite rags-to-riches stories were incomplete and misleading? Well, our author, Malcolm Gladwell, is convinced that this is true, and he makes a moderately convincing case.
This morning, I decided to read a few pages of the next book on my list: Outliers. That was yesterday morning. Now, I’m done now, and I must admit, this book sucked me in. Gladwell is a masterful writer, and he’s confident–for every one page of philosophical or psychological content, there are ten containing seemingly irrelevant stories (compare this to a Steven Pinker or Edward O. Wilson book–in their cases, that ratio is inverted). But, he always ties it together at the end, and the stories are mostly justified (though I believe this book could have been between fifteen to twenty pages shorter without losing its punch).
This was my first Gladwell book–I’d always found myself skeptical of him and steered clear–but, I’m glad I read it, and I can honestly say that I’ll be back for more.
For better or for worse, Gladwell is an immensely accessible author with no desire to get technical. Some may like this, others may not. I’m on the fence. On one hand, I read these books to sate my curiosity, and I consider the finer details extra nourishing. On the other hand, I know that those very details, in but a year’s time, will be forgotten and that the only surviving messages are the “take-home messages,” namely -the main themes, the author’s stances, the broad and dynamic rules of thumb that help us analyze the world and communicate what we’ve learned with others. For that reason, this is a pretty concise read–a sound investment, if you will. It serves-up the “take-home messages” and leaves the details at the doorstep. And, after a seventy-page Carl Jung essay and four hundred pages of Pinker’s linguistic word trees, this was a welcome break!
The story of success is not one of the best and the brightest rising above their peers but one of accumulative advantages, self-fulfilling prophecies, and our inescapable cultural pasts. At least, that’s what Gladwell is trying to tell you. Those rags-to-riches stories in which one’s success is achieved solely by dedication and brilliance are about as accurate and informative as describing 2001 as a movie about space. There is a lot more at play!
Why were the Beatles young masters of music? Well, they got back-to-back eight-hour gigs at a local bar before they came to the United States. By the time they got here, they were ridiculously talented, and a series of very fortunate (and unlikely) events led to their recognition and stardom. If they arrived too early or too late, it’s possible the Beatles have been set on a drastically different musical path. What about Bill Gates? How did he find such success so quickly? Well, by sheer luck: he was born into a well-off family, went to a well-off high school (which was the first to purchase a computer, back when they were nearly the size of rooms, before even most universities). He claims he’d be surprised if any more than fifty kids in the world at that time had the same expertise and practice as he did on the computer, and was lucky enough to be born into a world that placed a high emphasis on precisely his obsession–but his hard work and intelligence didn’t hurt!
Gladwell proposes that we embrace a drastically different paradigm to understand success. He’s not the first to make this statement, but it seems he’s been the most effective in compiling and presenting it to the public at large. I was especially impressed with his inclusion of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which assert that general temperaments and values are deeply linked to one’s culture. There are some unfortunate conclusions one can draw from this, such as which culture is superior or inferior at certain tasks–such as becoming pilots, which Gladwell covers with great sensitivity–but he makes sure to state that such generalizations are not always true of individuals. This is an important point which distinguishes Hofstede’s cultural dimensions from its darker cousin, environmental determinism, which failed to take human variability into account and, as a result, helped ideologically support some of the darkest events in history.
I look forward to reading more of Gladwell’s works. If they are anything like Outliers, they are accessible, meticulously-wrought, and, above all else, good fun. His style is magnetic, and his books are the type that you will consume much faster than you’d expect. When I reached the final word, I closed the book and wondered why a mass restructuring of US institutions was not already underway. This is a sign of a good book, an important book. Definitely, check this one out!