Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell book cover
Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) by Malcolm Gladwell is a quirky look at what makes people successful. Why are the vast majority of ice hockey stars born between January and March? What propelled Bill Gates to stupendous success? Why are so many corporate lawyers Jewish? Where did the Beatles musical talent come from? Gladwell attempts to answer all of these questions and more in his exploration of what makes an outlier (a person who enjoys exceptional success, by Gladwell’s definition). His aim is to counter the American success story paradigm, which lauds exceptional individuals whose tenacity and talent forces them to the top of their field: the ideal of the perfect meritocracy. Gladwell, instead of propagating this myth, sets out to explain how vitally important each outliers’ personal circumstances and opportunities are. His method for doing this is to recount a number of stories – scientific investigations of anomalies made personal by Gladwell – and tie these together to support his thesis. Through this chatty style of inductive reasoning, Gladwell lays out some interesting ideas and provides a starting point for the reader who wants to investigate further some of the ideas we hold about success.

Gladwell’s positioning of the outstandingly successful as ‘outliers’ is a brilliant piece of marketing, which encapsulates his great talent for taking relatively mundane or well-known information and spinning it into something far more tantalising. Gladwell’s definition of outliers ties in with the scientific definition of the word; that is to say, those anomalies so far off the chart as not to be worth mapping with the regular data. But, while Gladwell might start by discussing the truly exceptional – the one in a billion, where it is quite clear that a large number of variables need to align to facilitate success – for the most part he is actually considering those who are successful in a more everyday sense; those at the top of the chart, rather than off it altogether. Naturally, this makes the stories far more relatable for the reader, even if it somewhat muddles the theme of the book.

In essence, Gladwell argues for the Matthew effect, that success is "grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances". For him "no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone". Gladwell’s contention is pretty simple: hard work + opportunity = success (as opposed to innate talent = success). Of course, there is more to it than that, as he discusses (tenacity and social skills are particularly important), but this construction is fundamentally what Outliers sets out to prove.

After positing this (albeit unexceptional) idea Gladwell goes over a series of examples drawn from theories and research already published, and uses these to illustrate the point in one way or another. While most of these are spun into interesting, personal stories, too much time is spent on some. To offer an example of one of the early chapters, Gladwell starts off in interesting territory by demonstrating that Canadian ice hockey players are more likely to be born in the first quarter of the year than at any other time. The reason? Most youth teams are split by age, determined by the year a child is born, i.e. if a child is born in January he will be playing with other children who are up to twelve months younger and less developed than himself. This being the case, he is more likely to appear a superior player and thus have resources poured into his development, only accentuating the difference.

The style of recounting stories and tying them to empirical research is engaging. It is, however, important to acknowledge that Gladwell digs into his examples in a superficial way – as one would expect in a book like Outliers – and that the conclusions he draws must be viewed in this light. For any of the examples he uses to demonstrate his point, there are more nuanced readings available and a broader range of opinion not covered by Gladwell. This is inevitable, but it is worth bearing in mind when assessing the validity of some of the conclusions drawn here. So, while there is no real data or statistical analysis provided to support Gladwell’s line of thinking (which is not always fully explicated), there are interesting snatches of information, some of which may be new to the reader.

One significant problem with Gladwell’s method is that, on the whole, he examines those who have succeeded in isolation, rather than comparing them to others who were presented with comparable opportunities and put the work in. Equally, taking a success story and then looking back to identify the events of greatest significance to that success is problematic – after all, this can be done from any starting point, but no firm conclusion can ever be drawn. Humans love to draw patterns from information, but Gladwell never truly considers the randomness of success, and this feels like a missed step.

Gladwell has honed his remarkably clear writing style at both the Washington Post and the New Yorker, and is today one of the most readable pop. sociology / economics journalists. That style is evident here, as he relays each new piece of scientific knowledge in an easy and relatable manner. Certainly, a lot is over-simplified because of this approach and the readability-reliability balance may be slightly off, but this is a difficult balancing act, and Gladwell pulls it off fairly well. That said, when one sits down at the end of reading the book and evaluates what has been learnt, the new information can be covered in a handful of bullet points (see most reviews / synopses of the book). While reading Outliers, it might feel interesting, but ultimately there is little of true originality and it doesn’t expand one’s mind greatly. It would be a worryingly disengaged mind that finds any of Gladwell’s conclusions here paradigm-shifting, but he lays out his argument relatively well and succeeds in drawing together and dressing up different examples, which should engage the reader.

Gladwell closes with the vague conclusion that society ought to be better shaped to support and nurture all people and not explain away success by the myth of innate talent. It’s a message that’s hard to disagree with, although it’s ambiguous enough that each reader can take what they want from it (somehow, one suspects the underlying socialist slant of this conclusion is not one neoliberal America is likely to leap to embrace in its purest form).

One should be very cautious when a book / author takes a position that either (a) means it’s possible for anyone to succeed if they follow certain steps, or (b) explains away their lack of success by something other than lack of talent or effort on their part. Outliers does both (firstly by suggesting innate talent is less important than putting in a significant amount of practice, i.e. 10,000 hours, on a particular skill (as found by Anders Ericsson in 1990), and secondly, by making clear that to succeed one also has to been presented with prime opportunities over which one has no control), and so one must be careful when dealing with its findings. Through this slant it’s not difficult to see why Outliers has been one of the most popular pop. science books of the last few years, but it certainly has its limitations. If Gladwell’s aim is to explain why some people are successful and some aren’t, he fails. If his aim is to expound a theory to which he subscribes, then he does so relatively engagingly.

Engaging enough while it lasts, but not particularly satisfying.


Useful Links
Reviews of Outliers on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Outliers on Amazon (US)

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