Book review: Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

“Genius!”, “Brilliant!”, the book cover says.

Outliers on Amazon
Outliers on Amazon

Yes, the book is fun. Yes, Malcolm Gladwell has an entertaining writing style. “Outliers” points out some interesting facts and figures. It tells the extraordinary story of child prodigy Bill Gates and his road to found one of the greatest companies in our history. It shows you the the unusual circumstances that drove Robert Oppenheimer to the leading position in probably the biggest science project in human history: Project Manhattan. Many other stories follow and Gladwell points to a simple truth: context is everything.

The big idea behind “Outliers” is that nothing matters more than the context. There is no individual motivated enough to rise against the odds and our usual “rags to riches” stories are usually no more than fiction.

Bill Gates would not have succeeded were it not for a series of fortunate events that led him to be one of the few (probably 50) people in the world having access to the technology he used to develop his programming skills.

The 10 000 hours

Add 10 000 hours (Gladwell points out that nothing great is ever achieved without at least 10 000 hrs of practice) to the opportunities someone like Bill Gates had, a lot of self-determination, a strong individual and you get a success story. The point is that we should always look for the details that make up the context.

Such details seem visible in the Beatles’ success as well. Were it not for the time spent in Hamburg performing over 1000 hours live in less than 2 years (most than many bands play live in their entire career) the Beatles would not have had the showmanship, stamina or apparent innate talent that made them probably the biggest band in history.

Is high IQ an indicator of future success?

The book shows what talent or a high IQ can do for an individual. Nothing, basically. In the early 20th century a psychologist named Lewis Terman searched for gifted children, with an IQ of over 135. His “Termites” as the group would later be called were followed throughout their life. Terman tracked their path through life and had seen that theier high IQ was not necessarily an indicator of success in professional life. The adult “Termites” group had an impressive array of accomplishments. However – not all of them. It seemed that a certain “C” group was not very successful. As Terman put it, their lives turned out “disappointing”.

Gladwell outlines the things that made some of the “Termites” successful and others not. It was their upbringing, their social and economic background. Basically if you were to be born in an educated, high income family, you had great chances to become successful. If you had the misfortune to be born in a family where you and your brothers were constantly abused by an alcoholic stepfather, as was the case with Chris Langan, your chances to succeed in our society would dramatically drop.

Outliers – fun to read

Malcolm Gladwell bring several stories together in order force a connection between what we, as society, call success and the context that led to said success. Some of these connections may seem far fetched and sometimes they are. However, the book makes for an entertaining read.

“Outliers” is neither genius nor brilliant. It’s fun and interesting. It gives you some hard data you can show off when meeting your friends over beer but the fact is you will probably forget what was it about 10 months after you’re done reading it. When time’s limited I would rather suggest Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”. It’s fun, well written and you’ll still know what’s it about 2 years after you’ve read it.