Book Review – Outliers

There are a lot of facts in the world that are accepted simply because they are cited so often and in so many places. One such fact is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice before you are an expert at, well, anything. This is mentioned just about everywhere recently, from Dilbert to Cracked. Where did this fact come from, though?

Outliers: The Story of Success, a book from Malcolm Gladwell, is the source (or at least, the major popularizing source) of the 10,000 hour factoid, as well as discussing other factors that lead to the great success of the select few people in everything from hockey to math tests. Similar to his previous books The Tipping Point and Blink, it looks at how our personalities and histories affect our success in life. Does it provide some interesting perspective on what leads to some people being highly successful ‘outliers’ and others not? As always, let’s read on!

Summary

Introduction – The Roseto Mystery


OutliersThe book opens with a short section discussing a small town named Roseto in eastern PA (near where I grew up, incidentally). The town has a much lower rate of heart disease and much longer life span than the typical rate, making them an outlier when it came to health. Researchers noted that this outlying trait wasn’t due to healthy eating, good genes, or any other individual trait, but rather because the community had strong ties and supported each other, leading to longer life for most of the community, and leading to a major point of the book: success depends largely on your community .

Part One – Opportunity

Chapter 1 – The Matthew Effect

The first section of the book, Opportunity, looks at how being given an opportunity when you are young or otherwise getting started in life can allow people to become even more successful. Chapter one opens by quoting the book of Matthew, verse 25:29, which notes that those who have will get more, and those who do not will lose even what little they have. It uses the example of hockey players in Canada, noting that those who make the deadline for starting in the hockey league when they are young (January 1st, if you are curious) tend to benefit, to the point where most professional hockey players are born in the first three months of the year. The chapter notes that though hard work and natural skill are important to success in life, sheer luck (in this case, and several others in the book, when you are born) has a major influence on whether you succeed).

Chapter 2 – The 10,000 Rule

Here’s the rule I cited at the start of this article: it takes 10,000 hours to master the skills necessary to succeed in almost anything in life. There are several examples cited in the chapter, with one being the Beatles, who played for numerous hours in Hamburg before becoming successful (and added a few more years’ worth of effort to reach 10,000 hours before their biggest hits). It also looked at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other great computer successes, noting that they came of age at a time when computers were starting to become more common place, enabling them to get much more practice on the rapidly developing instruments (and noting that all the big names in computers today were born in a narrow window of 1954-1955).

Chapter 3 – The Trouble with Geniuses, Part I

The is a tendency to believe that  people who are smarter will be more successful in life. This chapter looks at several studies, including that of the high IQ level ‘Termites’, as one group of highly intelligent students who were tracked through life were called, and notes that raising IQ levels does help people to succeed in life…up to a point. Beyond IQ values of about 115 (that is, above about 85% of the population), the difference in specific intelligence levels has little effect, in much the same way that the difference between six foot six and seven foot tall has less effect on the skill of basketball players than the amount of effort and time (there’s that 10,000 hour rule coming back into play) that the players put in.

Chapter 4 – The Trouble With Geniuses, Part II

Continuing to look at intelligence, this section then considers the different types of intelligence that exist. IQ rates measure analytical intelligence, that is, the ability to look questions, analyze them, and come up with a solution as quickly as possible. There are other types of intelligence, though, including practical intelligence, the knowledge of how to do something (what you might consider ‘street smarts’). One example is the sense of entitlement taught to middle and upper class children, the willingness to stand up and challenge authority to make their cases heard, something is taught mainly though by the children’s parents and their larger community, and which poorer children tend to go without.

Chapter 5 – The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

The last chapter in this section looks at the success of Joe Flom, a highly influential and powerful lawyer, and three characteristics that enabled him to become such a success. Namely, he was (1) Jewish, and prior to the seventies, was prevented from working in high class law firms, which had the side effect of allowing him to develop skills in hostile take overs and litigation that became such a huge part of law in the late seventies and eighties. He was also (2) born in a demographic trough, a time when there were fewer people born, and benefited from fewer students, more time with teachers and professors, and fewer competitors for jobs throughout his life. Lastly, (3) he was from a family of garment makers, and the type of meaningful, individually controlled work they performedled to more children finding themselves as doctors and lawyers. All of this led to Flom (and many other Jews) becoming successful lawyers (and doctors) in more recent years.

Part Two – Legacy

Chapter 6 – Harlan, Kentucky

The second part of the book, Legacy, looks at how the history of families and the location where the people live can greatly affect how they behave. It opens with a chapter looking at some of the Appalachian feuds between families (think Hatfields and McCoys, although the chapter primarily focuses on a different feud). It notes that a major reason that the settlers of that area were so prone to feuds is that they tend to be from herding backgrounds, and that it was important to establish a reputation as willing to fight for your honor to keep others from trying to steal your animals. This is also part of the reason that there is more of a sense of honor among ‘southerners’ than ‘northerners’ in the US.

Chapter 7 – The Ethnic Theory of Plan Crashes

The seventh chapter continues the look at how legacies can affect modern day behavior, this time looking at airline crashes and seeing why different cultures have different levels of airline crashes. (In particular, why the Korean Air crash that serves as the overarching example of the chapter seemed to occur.) It notes that particularly in Oriental cultures (such as South Korean based Korean Air), there is a strong deference to authority, formally noted by psychologists as a high Power Distance Index. This leads to those in lower positions of authority (such as the first officer on a plane) to not challenge a higher authority (in this case, the captain) or to mitigate or downplay the urgency of their meanings, even if it leads to a crash. It also notes how stressing the importance of lower officers to question higher officers has led to a decline in the number of crashes in more recent years.

Chapter 8 – Rice Paddies and Math Tests

In case you were thinking that, based on the last chapter, the book is biased against those of Asian descent, fear not; chapter eight notes some reasons why Asian cultures tend to be so proficient at math. First, there’s the fact that most Oriental languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean) tend to have simpler and more logical names for numbers (11 is called ten-one, for example). Then, it’s noted that the Japanese and Chinese cultures are based largely on raising rice, a task that is much more complex and shows a greatly connection between effort and reward then the wheat and other crops that supplied most Western cultures. This lead over time to a modern willingness to work and study in the Oriental cultures that shows in better scores in math and other academic subjects.

Chapter 9 – Marita’s Bargain

The final chapter of the book looks at the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy located in the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. The students are chosen by lottery, and though it is public school, it produces students who are incredibly well-skilled, particularly in subjects like math. The chapter stresses that one reason for the great success of KIPP (and schools in other countries that outperform the US) is that it provides more time in school for its attendees, both more days during the year and more hours during the day. This increase in time spent in the school and the effort put in by the teachers enables students from otherwise poor backgrounds to succeed.

Epilogue – A Jamaican Story

The book wraps up with a history of Gladwell’s relatives, particularly his mother, aunt and grandmother. He stresses that though those women are all intelligent and very hard working, they all benefited from the circumstances of their society. From their race to the time they were born to the traits of Jamaican culture at the time, they had opportunities that might not be available otherwise and were able to succeed as a result. The final message of the book is that the opportunities available to us and circumstances in which we live matter much more in success, particularly of the highly successful people we view as outliers, than does any inherent skills.

Pros

  • Thought-Provoking: There’s a lot of material in the book that raises questions, from how to achieve ten thousand hours of practice in a field to how to benefit from (or negate) the effects of your legacy.
  • Well-Researched: There are plenty of sources cited to support Gladwell’s conclusions, as well as more than a few interviews to demonstrate the points made in the book.
  • Very Deep Material: The book covers a lot of subject matter for the relatively short length, as you can probably tell by the length of my summaries of each chapter.

Cons

  • Subjects Jump Around: In supporting his points, Gladwell tends to provide lots of difference references, and goes from one to another and back quickly, making it sometimes hard to follow.
  • Sometimes Overemphasizes Luck: There is an (over)emphasis on luck rather than skill in improving people’s lives in many parts of the book; while situations are important, how you take advantage of your environment (or not) deserves more stress.

Overall

Outliers: The Story of Success is a very interesting read. It raises numerous interesting points, and provides, as the subtitle notes, ‘the story of success’ for many people. While there could be more emphasis on the work done by the successful people noted in the book, raising the issue of how much is dependent on the underlying situations they face (including the many in life that are largely out of their control) is quite interesting.

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