Book review: Out­liers’

Mal­colm Gladwell’s book imparts some much-needed opti­mism and encour­age­ment to the Everyman’s pur­suit of suc­cess.

I can­celled my dig­i­tal sub­scrip­tion to The New Yorker recently because the mag­a­zine car­ries a vast sec­tion in every issue that is useful only to people who live in, or are obsessed with, New York. But one of the many rea­sons I sub­scribed to the mag­a­zine in the first place was Mal­colm Gladwell’s arti­cles. Mr Glad­well has been a staff writer for the mag­a­zine for about two decades now. I always found his arti­cles quite insight­ful, which is why, when I was about to catch a flight out of Berlin a few months back I decided to spend €9⁹⁹ and grab a copy of one of his more con­tro­ver­sial books, Out­liers.

It was grip­ping in a way few works of non-fic­tion can claim to be, but most of the book is meant to be ques­tioned and chewed open rather than blindly devoured. I found the start of the book some­what curi­ous: in a bid to explain what this book is about, Mr Glad­well starts with the story of Roseto, a med­ical out­lier, a town where cer­tain med­ical con­di­tions were 30 – 35% rarer than in the rest of Amer­ica. The reason, he says, as a physi­cian by name Stew­art Wolf would later find out, was not geog­ra­phy, lifestyle or exer­cise, but that the people of Roseto were living hap­pily, in their own small world, in their trusted little soci­ety, in utmost har­mony.

These were things sci­en­tists had never before asso­ci­ated with heart dis­ease and other such ail­ments, but the rarity of heart con­di­tions in Roseto forced the med­ical com­mu­nity to step aside and look at things dif­fer­ently, to reason out that the things they had never sus­pected were affect­ing patients and, in turn, could affect a person’s health and life. I want to do for our under­stand­ing of suc­cess what Stew­art Wolf did for our under­stand­ing of health’, begins Mr Glad­well.

In one line, Out­liers is about how hard work and clev­er­ness alone do not guar­an­tee suc­cess in life, and how luck, cir­cum­stance and being at the right place at the right time too can all have sub­stan­tial effects on this. At first glance, Out­liers may seem like an escape strat­egy for some­one look­ing to not work hard and blame it on the stars instead, and this is what gave rise to a con­stant debate I had with this book: while the many anec­dotes and the many con­nec­tions between work and cir­cum­stance are insight­ful, I find it hard to believe there were no others in the exact same cir­cum­stance who never made it in life.

Con­sider two of the ear­li­est exam­ples in the book where Mr Glad­well goes on to show, full with game ros­ters etc., that the time when play­ers (and Sil­i­con Valley com­pany founders in the other exam­ple) were born played a huge part in their suc­cess. He states that, had they not been born when they were, they likely would not even have entered the fields they did.

How­ever, while these birth­dates were undoubt­edly con­ve­nient, were mil­lions of others also not born around the same time and would at least tens of thou­sands of them have not also been exposed to sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, and did they not yet fail to rise to the occa­sion or make the most of it? While there is no argu­ing that being born in the 50s enabled Apple’s Jobs and Sun’s Joy to enter the fields they did, I remain uncon­vinced that a few exam­ples can rep­re­sent everyone’s sto­ries. By them­selves, these are undoubt­edly great reads, but I would hes­i­tate before treat­ing them as exam­ples.

The book takes it fur­ther with two full chap­ters that describe how, while IQ is useful to some extent, it really is not the whole pack­age. These chap­ters are inter­est­ingly titled The trou­ble with geniuses’. Mr Glad­well argues that IQ is con­ver­gent and does not depict one’s imag­i­na­tion (not least because imag­in­ing means using data to diverge, rather than con­verge, and arrive at propo­si­tions). IQ, he says, really stops mat­ter­ing beyond a par­tic­u­lar point and I tend to agree with this line of thought. What does help is prac­ti­cal intel­li­gence’, sit­u­a­tion-spe­cific knowhow that can help an indi­vid­ual turn cir­cum­stances around to their own best inter­ests; call it street smarts. Honing this abil­ity will almost always prove to be more help­ful in becom­ing suc­cess­ful than does know­ing how to solve the type of island ques­tions that fill IQ test book­lets. Again, these chap­ters, like the book itself, are filled with anec­dotes.

Speak­ing of anec­dotes, one of the most intrigu­ing things for me was where Mr Glad­well found these sto­ries and people in the first place. Some­one like Jobs is famous, but not all anec­dotes in this book are of famous people. The only one explained is Mort Jan­klow, because Mr Janklow’s firm is the author’s lit­er­ary agency.

Besides this, most people cited in this book were born in middle-class or better envi­ron­ments, going against the heroic (even if not always real­is­tic) tales of poor men over­com­ing odds to find suc­cess. Chris Langan is among the poor­est men­tioned in Out­liers but he does not have any­where near as much dis­cus­sion time in the book as his richer coun­ter­parts; in fact, Mr Langan is used as an exam­ple of how having great IQ alone is of little use.

Poor people becom­ing suc­cess­ful is such an oft-told tale that the suc­cess of people born into rich fam­i­lies is not as often heard because they are assumed to have some­how gotten a head start and their rise is seen as much less heroic, even if their achieve­ments are not. But the dif­fer­ence between suc­cess in fam­i­lies divided by wealth, accord­ing to this book, is clear: richer fam­i­lies prac­tise con­certed cul­ti­va­tion’ which gives their kids a sense of enti­tle­ment (not the bad kind) which enables them to take charge of sit­u­a­tions, i.e. be prac­ti­cally intel­li­gent, simply because they believe, to put it in a crude way, that they have every right to be in charge. That is not to say poorer kids never grow up with this, but the sta­tis­tics (and Mr Glad­well quotes them amply) lean towards the well-off.

All said and done, there is a faint back­ground music to this book summed up beau­ti­fully by this line: Suc­cess­ful people are prod­ucts of par­tic­u­lar places and envi­ron­ments.’ In fact Out­liers seems like an ode to seiz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. It is also, in some small way, about how some people have great­ness thrust upon them: The sense of pos­si­bil­ity so nec­es­sary for suc­cess comes … from the par­tic­u­lar oppor­tu­ni­ties that our par­tic­u­lar place in his­tory presents us with.’

How­ever, to only look at this face of the book is to miss it entirely, because one of the many claims Out­liers is famous for is its ten-thou­sand hour rule. This is hotly debated and is what led me to the book in the first place. (Talk about any pub­lic­ity being good pub­lic­ity.) I will intel­li­gently steer clear of this topic but the gist of it is that Mr Glad­well, using the Bee­tles and others as exam­ples, says that ten-thou­sand hours of delib­er­ate prac­tice are required to become world-class in any field. One won­ders.

In fact, to me, the whole point of this book was to make me stop and think. I will not go over every inch of the book in this review because that makes little sense. Con­tro­ver­sial ideas like the ten-thou­sand hour rule or that for your work to be sat­is­fy­ing it has to be autonomous, com­plex and have a con­nec­tion between effort and reward’ are at all not a case to dis­miss the book but to realise that, if any­thing, Out­liers puts you close to the lives of men who have achieved great things and asks you to pause and wonder what they did it. And whether it con­vinces you that they achieved things because of their effort or their cir­cum­stances or luck, in the end it does, like any good book, make you men­tally richer.