Book Review: Outliers

Outliers: The Story of Success
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2008

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines what makes some people extraordinarily successful, statistical outliers, in their chosen fields. He looks at Bill Gates, the Beatles, professional hockey players and Wall Street lawyers and explores the causes of their success.

It’s hard to quarrel with Gladwell’s main thesis, that the popular mythology of the self-made man rising from rags to riches is just that, a myth. Extraordinary success, Gladwell argues, depends not just on raw talent, hard work and passion, but also on opportunity, family and community support, historical circumstance, cultural legacies and a large helping of luck.

Take opportunity as an example. Based on his research, Gladwell suggests that it takes roughly 10,000 hours for someone to truly master a particular skill or activity, be it hockey or computer programming. That works out to about three hours a day for ten years. Through a series of fortunate events, Bill Gates had the opportunity to gain 10,000 hours of computer programming experience by the time he entered college. For a start, the wealthy parents at his high school purchased a computer terminal for the students at a time when few universities had such systems. Without that opportunity, and others that followed, Gates would never have accumulated that much programming time at such an early age, and would not have been ready to take advantage of the opportunities that arrived with the personal computer.

Like his earlier books The Tipping Point and Blink, Gladwell fills Outliers with fascinating case studies. Who would have thought that most professional hockey players are born in the first four months of the year? Or that thousands of years of rice farming would provide a cultural legacy that today makes Chinese students extraordinarily adept at mathematics?

Unfortunately, some of these are maddeningly long digressions that are at best tangentially related to the main theme of the book. The introductory chapter on the robust health of the residents of the town of Rosetto, a discussion of the violence and crime inherent in communities based on the “culture of honor,” and a detailed journey into the cultural causes of airplane crashes could all have been shortened or eliminated entirely without loss to the book. Don’t get me wrong: as stand-alone articles they are well told and interesting. As sections or chapters of Outliers, they’re just padding.

No one succeeds alone, Gladwell says. And, as he notes, successful people often realize this themselves, and give credit to their coaches, their families, their communities, and their good fortune.

Gladwell’s corollary is that if more people were given the opportunities and support they need to develop their talents or pursue their dreams, then many, many more of them would be successful too. Again, it’s hard to argue with this. Public education and health care, for example, have improved the lives of millions of people around the world.

Still there’s a troubling circularity to Gladwell’s argument. By his own definition, outliers are those individuals at the very height of success, at the extreme tail of the bell curve. If more people were given the chance to succeed, the peak of the curve (the mean) might be higher, and the length of the tail (variance) might be shorter. But there would still be outliers; they just wouldn’t lie out quite as far.

If you eliminated the advantage that an early birth month gives young hockey players, the NHL would have a larger pool of skilled players to draft from. On the other hand, how many hockey players does the NHL really need? There certainly isn’t an infinite demand. Most likely the total number of NHL players wouldn’t change much. The distribution of players across birth months would be more even, but that just means some players born early in the year would not do as well, in fact wouldn’t succeed as much. The distribution of skill among players might be more even too; there might be fewer superstars. Or maybe we’d just designate the superstars based on subtler criteria and finer distinctions.

In other words, there’s a limit to the total available opportunity for success in hockey. Likewise in business or politics an organization can only have one president at a time, and typically just a handful of vice presidents. In any endeavor that involves competition, there is almost always just one winner, no matter how level the playing field. A world in which success is more evenly distributed would arguably be a fairer one, but paradoxically in such a world extraordinarily successful individuals would be even more exceptional.

Now I don’t want to push this too far because I think Gladwell is not arguing for a totally egalitarian society, just a more egalitarian society, and a recognition that success is never achieved single-handedly.

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