Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” — Success Requires Many Helpers Along the Way

A single marble is in the center, while a group of marbles is at the top.Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS is about successful people — the “outliers” who skew the curve, supposedly the smartest and best among us.  In other words, it’s a story of genius — what it is, what it isn’t — and how they’ve become “the best and brightest.” 

As Gladwell says, we love to celebrate the “self-made” man — but in actuality, there is no such thing.  For every Bill Gates, who had a series of fluke events help him achieve enough expertise at an early age that he was able to seize the right opportunity when it was presented, there’s a Chris Langan — a man who is brilliant, but for whatever reason was unable to capitalize upon his opportunities (or in Langan’s particular case, just wasn’t presented with very many — Langan couldn’t succeed because he had no way through to success).

Here’s a passage from page 155:

Success is not a random act.  It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities . . . .

But how do you ever get to the point you can recognize an opportunity when you see it?  Gladwell talks about the “10,000 hour rule,” which states that it takes someone approximately 10,000 hours to become proficient in his field.  Those who achieve the 10,000 hours in any field — whether it’s music, computer science, medicine, you name it — are the ones who are able to recognize an opportunity, to seize it, because they have become experts in their field and know what they’re doing.  

But just wanting to get good at something and practice doing that thing isn’t enough; there usually are economic factors at work as well.  As Gladwell states on page 42:

You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side, there won’t be time to practice enough.  In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program — like a hockey all-star squad — or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.

Here, Gladwell is discussing computer pioneers Bill Joy and Bill Gates, who both received extensive and unusual early opportunities at the exact age they needed them in order to develop into the men they became.  He’s also discussing hockey players; in chapter one, Gladwell made the point that most hockey players on junior all-star teams (and thus, the vast majority of those who are drawn into the minor leagues, then the majors in time) are born in four months — January, February, March, and April — because the cutoff for who qualifies for what is January 1.  And the kids selected throughout for training are the biggest, strongest, fastest, and best coordinated — which mostly equates out to those who are the closest to that arbitrary cutoff date, because the oldest members have had the most time to get used to their growing bodies.

Now, it should be painfully obvious from knowing this fact that many, many people have been left behind in hockey programs (or other athletic pursuits; any arbitrary date will provide the exact, same data) that really did have the ability to play in junior leagues and work their way upward, but were hampered because their birthdays were later in the year.  Thus their bodies were less coordinated, smaller, and probably weaker, to boot — only a truly extraordinary kid would be able to get past all that and advance in the ranks.

So, an “outlier” — those who break the curve in any discipline — might start out being only marginally smarter, faster, better athletically, what have you, not a whole lot better.  But because that person was a bit faster or smarter, etc., to begin with, they get the extra opportunities to train that they need to attain true expertise — something Gladwell calls the “Matthew Effect,” otherwise summed up as, “He who has, gets.”

The real myth that’s been punctured is that of athletics being a meritocracy.  It’s not — there are numerous other factors in play that make a huge difference there.  Another myth that gets punctured is that of geniuses always rising to the top — as Chris Langan’s story painfully proves, if you’re born into the lower classes in this country, no matter how strong, smart, or talented you are, you have an enormous handicap to overcome and even being a genius may not be enough to do so.

But the biggest myth — that of the “self-made man” — is one Gladwell carefully and painstakingly tears down, because without some really good breaks, it’s unlikely Gates’ career, or Joy’s career, or even folks like Steve Jobs or Paul Allen, would’ve been able to do anything close to what they ended up with because they’d not have put in their 10,000 hours toward becoming experts so they’d not have any possible way to seize upon success when it was finally within their grasp.

All of this is a very long-winded way to say that one of Gladwell’s main points is this: our backgrounds matter.  (Yes, they can be circumvented.  But they still matter.)  Our ethnicity may matter more than we’d thought.  Our parents being born to the middle class, upper class, etc., definitely matters more in the long run to children than anything else (even though this fact, too, can be circumvented with careful preparation in school systems).

But the most hopeful main point is simply this: persistence.  Being willing to persist in the face of enormous obstacles goes a long way toward recognizing that golden opportunity when it finally arrives.  (Or, in the case of people like Chris Langan, help you deal with the fact your opportunity really never arrived and maintain a love of learning in the process.)  And being willing to persist when others would’ve quit will lead you to solutions others may well never have thought were possible, too.

Gladwell’s ideas are extremely thought-provoking and resonate long after you’ve read the final page of OUTLIERS.  That’s why this book rates a solid A, and why I’ll think about it for a long, long time to come.

— reviewed by Barb

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