Modern Book Review: Outliers

Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s other books and was looking forward to this one. But I am disappointed with this one, because his examination of outliers comes down to they were hard-working people who were born at the right time and into the right culture.

Gladwell certainly turns some traditional notions of where success comes from on their head, but he also reinforces others. While exploding the idea of innate talents being the final arbiter of success, at the same time, he reinforces the idea that successful people were born at the right time. ‘Born at the right time’ is not a figure of speech. He provides an example of how a father and son achieved very different outcomes because of the different decades of their birth.

Gladwell talks about how what culture a person is born into affects the approach he or she takes to a particular situation. The description of airline pilots makes you think about how you behave in certain situations, because when it comes to flying a plane, little things really do mean the difference between life and death.

Once again, Malcolm Gladwell has written abook that makes me think differently abbout the world. It does help me understand how some talented people never quite make the most of their talent. At the same time, it also makes me think that this book has just scratched the surface of the subject. One of the thinks I like about his writing is that it seems like a well-researched starting point on a number of topics. However, I would not say that ‘Outliers’ is the final word on human performance and success.

Two quick thoughts as to why:

First, I think his examples of success suffer from survivor’s bias, especially when talking about the differences in culture and time. In the case of hockey players, he points out how survivor’s bias makes us think that the best of the best have been found when other players haven’t been given a fair shake. But when he switches to talking about culture, he talks about the spectacular success or failures, but fails to put it in context. Of course perhaps survivor’s bias is not a fair critique in a book about outliers.

Second, while he does give weight to the fact that “if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, yoou can shape the world to your desires” he writes taht this can only truly happpen through luck of the draw. “Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blsuh to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, smoe just plained lucky — but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”

Maybe it is my own frustrated sense of self that makes me hope that this is not the case or that I was maybe born at the right time and haven’t realized it yet. If not, I can at least take comfort in the thought that Garrison Keillor was indeed correct ans we are all above average.

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