Malcolm Gladwell amazes and astounds afresh with his original thinking, fresh insights and somewhat controversial conclusions in what is his longest book yet, Outliers: The Story of Success (Penguin Books, 2009).
The man who gave us Tipping point and Blink, who showed us how to think in fresh ways about old problems, returns to form with Outliers which seems to, on the surface, focus on what is responsible for creating and producing people of genius; people of extraordinary gifts and exceptional attributes.
Gladwell points out what makes these people, whom he calls Outliers, different from the rest of us. Outliers, according to Gladwell, are people who are “situated away from or classed differently from the main or related body” of people.
In other words, Outliers are human beings set apart by their possession of genius or abundant talent in a field of human endeavour. But in true Gladwellian style, while celebrating these men and women of extraordinary talent, Gladwell goes against the norm to bust the myth of meritocracy and individual achievement.
Looking at so-called “self-made men,” Gladwell argues that whatever success they have achieved is not solely because of innate talent and ability, instead he suggests that success in whatever field is the result of a cocktail made up of opportunity and arbitrary advantage, what psychologists call “accumulative advantage.”
These have to do with arbitrary advantages of date of birth, size, family status, school attended, place of origin, practice and coincidence.
Filching examples from diverse fields; sports, technology, music, the academia and law amongst others, Gladwell tries to show that successful people generally don’t “rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage.”
His thesis revives anew the old nature and nurture argument; how much is the inborn talent responsible for your success compared, say, to the tutelage and practice you get from a great teacher or coach?
Gladwell argues that starting early, going to a good school, being exposed to the best learning environment, having rich parents who can pay for your lectures so you devote more time to study or practice can make the difference between exceptional and middling success.
Gladwell notes that this is something we are aware of but which because we are so over awed by those who succeed we often times fail to notice how much of a role we, as members of the society, play in “determining who makes it and who doesn’t”.
He cites the example of cut-off dates for athletes in hockey teams and football as a major determinant of those who make it to the professional rungs. He also shows that genius is not automatic. It is nurtured by practice.
To buttress this, Gladwell points to the 10,000 hour rule for success where he notes that to become successful in any field you must log in, at least, 10,000 hours of practice to become one of the best in that field and he says it doesn’t matter in what field be it music as in Mozart and The Beatles or in the arcane world of computing as in Bill Joy.
Smart, knowing, well researched and red hot controversial, Gladwell has written a book that makes those of us of middling achievement feel better about our accomplishments while letting us see that stripped of the arbitrary advantages that have gone in their favour, the so-called extra ordinary achievers would have been just like us: ordinary and normal.