Book review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Nature, nurture and circumstance

What do the Beatles have in common with Bill Gates? Why is January the perfect month to be born if you want to play elite hockey in Canada or soccer in the Czech Republic? What is so wonderful about 1835? The answers to these and myriad other questions are found in Outliers, The Story of Success, an exploration of the many paths to extraordinary success. Through Gladwell’s examination of subjects as varied as genius game show contestants, billionaires and airline pilots, he shows the importance of looking beyond the individual to understanding the secrets of exceptional people.

As Gladwell says, “…the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are,” these people and values prove crucial to nurturing the ability to succeed. He shows with evidence from sociologist Annette Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life, that socioeconomic factors and styles of parenting philosophy influence future success. By encouraging a sense of entitlement some families better prepare children to attain success. Of course, this being a book about outliers or “those who lay outside the everyday experience, where the normal rules did not apply,” we see evidence of unusual success in unlikely places. As Gladwell points out “…outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

With examples from Professor Termon’s study of genius level I.Q. in the 1920s and 30s in California schools to the life of Robert Oppenheimer, he shows that “…success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: when and where you were born, what your parents did for a living and what the circumstances of your upbringing were, all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world.” That is why when you were born proves so important. If you were born in 1953 or 1954 you were 21 years old in 1975, the perfect age to be part of the burgeoning technology revolution. Three years earlier and you are probably too old; three years later you are just starting high school, too young to be a tech entrepreneur.

Gladwell does not suggest that success is simply a matter of demographic luck combined with a good upbringing. Seizing opportunity is also about hard work “… the idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice.” As he shows with examples ranging from The Beatles to Mozart, they were in the right place and time and put in the practice to be able to seize opportunities when they came along.

In the latter chapters of the book, Gladwell wades into cultural legacy territory. He examines: the legacy of Appalachian settlers and the culture of honour; the culture of deference and its effect on airline crashes; the wet farming practices of Asian cultures and the effect on math scores; the consequences of inner city kids staying longer in school every day and the effect on college admissions; and the author’s own family history which provides an epilogue and an interesting encapsulation of the outliers theory. Quite a long list indeed, but they are entertainingly laid out.

Throughout Outliers, Gladwell provides a convincing and logical argument for the theory that timing, demographics, hard work and cultural legacy explain why some people are more successful. Even more impressive, he provides numerous examples of the spectacular results which can be achieved when nature, nuture and circumstance collide. Aside from the lengthy and numerous footnotes, this is an enjoyable and unexpectedly quick read. You will probably stay awake after bedtime to finish a chapter or two. For unexpected insights into 1835, hockey and Bill Gates—read this book.

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