Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

It was through the best-selling self-published writer Hugh Howey that I learned about this book. He posted a review of it on his site that got me sufficiently interested to seek it out. Howey, from his frequent online essays and comments, seems an amiable kind of guy, and is more than a little befuddled by his overwhelming success. He insists that his talent is no greater than many other less successful indie writers, and he has launched into the analysis of various books and statistical studies to find out what, in fact, are key factors that make someone successful in their field of endeavor.

Gladwell, in this book, posits that not only is talent not the overriding consideration, it is not even one of the main determinants in who succeeds and who doesn’t. In one section on IQ he points out that studies show that after a certain cutoff point of about 120 or so, IQ is no longer an important criterion of success. Other considerations take over. To succeed in the wide world, you have to have not only general intelligence, but practical intelligence and a good deal of luck.

To illustrate his theory, Gladwell starts with the star players of the Canadian hockey league, and asks the question: what makes them hyper-achievers when the country is full of young people who potentially have the same degree of innate talent? The answer is surprising, because it is not genetics or inherent ability. The fact is, the best players were born right after January 1st, the cutoff age for age-classes in hockey in Canada. This slight age difference makes them a little bigger and stronger than their peers, which attracts the interest of minor league teams, which gives them further training, and so on. A series of coincidences drives their success. And the statistical evidence for it is overwhelming.

For his next section he pulls out the big guns as examples: the Beatles, one of the most successful rock groups ever, and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. Gladwell calls the secret of their success the 10,000 hour rule. He says that if you want to make it big in any endeavor, you don’t have to be better than everyone else, you just have to work harder and practice more. Before Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and started up Microsoft, he logged in way over 10,000 programming hours. Before the Beatles became a musical sensation, they were invited to Hamburg, Germany, where they performed onstage at strip joints and clubs for eight hours a day, seven days a week. They were not overnight wonders. Before they became famous they paid their dues. Other examples abound in this chapter: Mozart, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy. Everyone put in their time before they made it big. Then he brings forth another interesting statistic: all of the big tech billionaires were born within a few years of each other, so that they could put in their 10,000 hours of training and be ready to jump on the first tech train when it rolled by. They were not more brilliant than anyone else; they just put in their hours and were in the right place at the right time.

This is something of great relevance to writers. Dean Wesley Smith says something similar, but puts it in the form of volume of work rather than time. He says that the first million words a writer writes is crap. Either way, 10,000 hours or 1,000,000 words, there is a significant apprenticeship before attainment. If you expect instant gratification in the writing game, or in most other endeavors in life, you’re living, as they say, in la-la land.

Of course, figuring out how much time you have spent writing or exactly how many words you have written, unless you are the hyper-disciplined sort of individual who keeps a log, is a guesstimate at best. The best solution, then, is to never stop practicing until they pry the keyboard out of your cold dead fingers. That way, presumably, you would at some point pass the threshold and be into some serious stuff.

In one of the later chapters, Gladwell comes to a similar conclusion about the school system. When speculating about the success of Asians in learning mathematics, he compares school instruction with rice farming. To plant and grow rice successfully, you have to get up before dawn and put in a long day of planting and tending all year long. If you don’t put in the hours, you don’t have a good harvest. Asian children excel at math not only because their language predisposes them to work with numbers more easily, but also because they put in many more hours studying it than most westerners do. Gladwell describes an experimental school program amongst some of the nation’s poorest kids in the Bronx in New York in which students have to put in study days of twelve hours or more, come in half days on Saturdays, and attend classes for part of the summer as well. These kids, formerly given up as hopeless cases, excel at mathematics, and almost all of them go on to attend college. Why? Because they put in the hours. They work at it.

I’m not sure I agree with everything Gladwell posits in his book, but I think most of it has enough veracity to be immeasurably inspirational. How many of us are tempted to give up because we think we’re not good enough? In reality, though, the only way to fail is to give up. Success is a mixture of hard work and luck, but I like what Kevin Anderson says about it (although I am quoting from memory and may not have it exactly right): “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” You can’t do anything about when you were born or the historical era in which you find yourself, but one thing you can do is work hard and put in your 10,000 and then 20,000 and then 100,000 hours. That’s all any of us can do. Sure, jump through the door of opportunity if it suddenly opens in front of you, but in the meantime, keep at it.

The book has other interesting sections as well, such as what causes some nationalities of airline pilots to be more accident prone, what made the Cumberland Hill area of Kentucky more conducive to feuding, what accounts for the success of the top law firms in New York, why some people tested with IQs high in the genius range make it in real life and others don’t, and, in a touching true tale at the end, how the author’s Jamaican ancestors overcame slavery and achieved success in society.

This book is entertaining, inspiring, eye-opening, and well-written. As I said, you don’t have to believe everything the author proposes, but at least in putting forth his ideas, he gets you to think outside the box, to challenge your assumptions, to see the world and human society in a new way, and that’s always a good thing.

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