Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So while I think that this concept is groundbreaking, and challenges our conception of success, I think that Gladwell's conclusion is a bit off. He successfully makes the case that there are other factors to success than hard work and natural talent, but his conclusion is that because other factors exists, outliers aren't the outliers believe them to be. They are just regular people. I have an issue with that. Yes, access to technology, a specific cultural heritage, or fortuitous timing may have played a part in the success stories we are all familiar with, but their hard work and natural talent ALSO play a part. The outliers are still outliers, even though they had outside factors working in their favor.

For example, he loves to tell the story of Bill Gates, and his unprecedented access to a computer terminal in 1968. However, there are precious few of us that would have taken full advantage of that resource, so it seems obvious that Bill Gates was still an outlier. Why didn't all of the other kids at that school start rival software companies? They didn't drink in the opportunity that was there. Would Bill Gates have built Microsoft without access to that terminal? I don't know, maybe not. Would that terminal have produced a Bill Gates without the personal dedication, intellect and entrepreneurial grit that showed up day after day and night after night to tap on its key? I don't think so. Bill Gates, and most of the other examples he cites are amazing individuals, and while they did have special opportunities, we should also recognize that they were special too.

The other conclusion I disliked from the Outliers book was the one that Gladwell never stated. He never said it outright, but the logical conclusion that came from his narrative is that if you didn't have the special circumstances that his subjects did, you had no chance of success. His saying (paraphrased) that successful people were not unique, but rather a product of their cultural heritage, timing and unique opportunities is a defeating thought pattern. Why would I strive to succeed at anything in life if I couldn't identify some way in which I was special? Moreover, if any of his subjects had shared his viewpoint, they probably would not have worked hard and would have missed their unique opportunities. I feel this is an incorrect conclusion. A better conclusion would be to ask what unique heritage, talents and circumstances are in front of me, and how can I magnify them? Where should I put my NEXT 10,000 hours? Unfortunately Gladwell never raises this question, nor does he give any substantive guidance to this end.

Gladwell is benefiting from the 20/20 vision offered by the past, processing the data, and stating what he found, and I do not argue his observations. But the application of that information is lacking, so for me this is only a 3 star read. It is fascinating, but in its current delivery only serves to promote a defeatist attitude toward life and our opportunities. It does not prompt what I believe are the positive traits of hard work, personal development and the upward mobility that is the American Dream.