Outliers: The Story of Success

Outlier –

1. something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body

2. a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample

This is how Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, begins.  There are many outliers (phenomenally successful or talented people) in our world, and many examples are given in this book.  This book actually reminds me of Freakanomics, in its attempt to explain or analyze sociological issues with a statistical/mathematical approach.  Given that description, this book may  not sound very interesting, but both books actually are fascinating, and were incredibly successful given the subject material.  What these books do is to put things in a different perspective.  Here, Gladwell is challenging the popular notion of success.  As expressed in his introduction, he wants to prove through his research that unlike commonly held beliefs, outliers are not as phenomenal as popularly believed.

9780316017930_p0_v1_s114x166“People don’t rise from nothing.  We do owe something to parentage and patronage.  The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.  But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.  It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.” – page 19

This is outlined in the introduction, and throughout the subsequent chapters he attempts to prove that what may accepted or be believed to be an outlier is the result of unique variables.  The examples that are given include birth order, year of birth, opportunity, access (to better education/facilities/information), cultural and religious background, and language.   These are not all the examples given, they are each used to explain how outliers are created.  One of the most interesting questions Gladwell raises is about true talent, and whether an individual is born with an innate ability, or unique talent, or is true mastery due to practice and opportunity.  He claims that true mastery, in any area, is not due to an innate ability, and is rather a result of  practice.  At least 10,000 hours he claims.  He uses a few examples to prove his theory on mastery: including tech geniuses and musicians.  The argument is pretty convincing – and certainly had me questioning everything I believed about incredibly talented and successful people.

9780316204361_p0_v6_s260x420The role of language is also in question.  Two examples are given to demonstrate how language may play a more important role than we may think.  One involves a Korean Air flight that went down in Guam in 1997.  The other examines why Asians are thought to be better at math, pointing the finger at the way numbers are pronounced in English versus Chinese (Korean and Japanese are very similar).  Interested?  I found this book hard to put down, and it’s definitely something outside of my usual areas of interest.

Gladwell has a new book coming this fall, David and Goliath.  I’m adding it to my must-read list!

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Adulting

As a relatively new parent I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “they don’t come with instructions”.  This of course, is true, and refers to how hard being a new parent can be (although I know it does not get easier).  So while there may not be an instruction manual for children, and how to deal with all their unique personalities, there is a new book that serves as one for adults: Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.  This may not work (or be helpful) for everyone, but it is funny, and some actually may find this educational!  Written by Kelly Williams Brown, this books targets 20-somethings who are out in the world for the first time.  I’m admittedly not in her target audience, but I did enjoy the book.

9781455516902_p0_v3_s260x420Proof that many may benefit from her words of wisdom: “There is not one single adult on this earth who has not felt the deep, unsettling feeling that their life is wobbly and unmanageable, no matter how diligently they sort the recycling and iron their sensible slacks.”

Far removed from this twenty-seomthing experience, after reading this book I was reminded how utterly clueless I was at that age.  I shared my first apartment when I was 22 with another girl the same age who literally had to teach me how to cook an egg.  Back then, this book would have served me well.  There are chapters addressing nearly every aspect of adult life: cooking/grocery shopping, how to find and maintain an apartment, employment, managing money, relationships, and dealing with crises.  Next time you’re searching for a college graduation gift, or a fun birthday present for someone in this age group, pick this book up!  Instead of the usual books Oh the Places You’ll Go, or Curious You: On Your Way, opt for something funnier and more original – especially if you want to score cool aunt/uncle/older friend points!

Some of the advice offered is something more “seasoned” adults can learn from.  One of the funniest passages reminds us all that there we should always try to filter what we say and what we talk about:

“Remember that time someone told you in loving detail every single medical thing they’ve been experiencing lately and it was incredibly fascinating and not at all disgusting?  No?  That’s probably because someone talking about their own body almost never makes people feel anything but uncomfortable.”

Hilarious!

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Detroit

Detroit

I’ve just put down Detroit: An American Autopsy.  And wow, what a great read!  This is not something I would’ve typically picked up on my own, but about a month ago I heard an interview with the author on NPR that piqued my interest.  Charlie LeDuff, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, who is actually from Detroit, returned home and after years of living in the country’s media centers of Los Angeles and New York.  It was while he worked for the New York Times that he received his Pulitzer Prize, for a series called How Race Is Lived in America.  It’s this provocative style of writing he is known for, and something that makes this particular book worth reading.

If you’ve never cared much about Detroit, that’s ok.  Get just a few pages into this book and it’ll be nearly impossible to remain uninterested.  Being his hometown, LeDuff has experienced just how tough this city is.  The city itself is presented almost as a case-study of the decline of the American economy in this era, and the decline of the middle class overall.  In my opinion, that is something everyone should be concerned about.  Detroit had once been one of the most important cities in America, and certainly the most important industrial city of the 20th century.  That era has passed, and with its once greatness, went the city’s middle class workforce.  When the economy collapsed in 2008, many questions were raised as to how this had happened (other than the obvious indicators).  There were talks about bailouts of the auto industry, but the truth is, as LeDuff points out, Detroit had been dead long before:

“No one cared much about Detroit until the Dow collapsed in 2008, the economy melted down and the chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington, D.C. to grovel.  Suddenly the eyes of the nation turned back upon this postindustrial sarcophagus, where crime and mismanagement and mayhem played themselves out in the corridors of power and on the powerless streets” – 3

There is much more to this book than just a chronicle of the decline of the city.  The city’s economic decline is worsened by government corruption on every level, rampant crime, failing schools, and police officers and firemen who were understaffed and under-equiped.  LeDuff uses his own history to illustrate the toll the city itself takes on the individual.  Because race has been such an issue in the city (not unlike most major cities nationwide), he traces his own mixed-race lineage which includes African and native American blood.  One of the most disheartening parts of the story includes his description of his sister’s own experiences.  She and her daughter are victims of alcohol and drug abuse, unable to escape the city’s vices.  So many of the city’s youth fall victim to the streets.  LeDuff places the blame on the city itself.  He expresses his contempt and feeling of hopelessness for the fate of the city’s youth:

“It would be easy to lay the blame on McNeal for the circumstances in which she raised her sons.  But is she responsible for police officers with broken computers in their squad cars, firefighters with holes in their boots, ambulances that arrive late, a city that can’t keep its lights on and leaves its vacant buildings to the arsonist’s match, a state government that allows corpses to stack up in the morgue, multinational corporations that move away and leave poisoned fields behind, judges who let violent criminals walk the streets, school stewards who steal the children’s milk money, elected officials who loot the city, automobile executives who couldn’t manage a grocery store, or Wall Street grifters who destroyed the economy and left the nation’s children with a burden of debt while they partied it up in Southampton?” – 271

It’s a lot to digest!  He makes a strong argument that Detroit is not alone in its decline.  Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, Detroit was once a great city.  A city in which the average American could find a well-paying blue collar job.  This part of the American dream was also open to African Americans, long before they would enjoy similar opportunities elsewhere in the U.S.  Yet, beginning in the late 1950s, when Japanese automakers began their ascent, Detroit began to close factories down.  This continued, and resulted in the exodus of  workers, businesses, educators, an overall loss of revenue for the city, and eventually the city’s ultimate collapse.

Joyland

Last summer I devoted quite a bit of time to Stephen King.  I read Under the Dome, 11/22/63, and The Shining, all of which were amazing.  This summer, he has a new book out – Joyland, which was published with a smaller publishing firm, Hard Case Crime.  His choice to release this book as a mystery paperback was interesting given that King isn’t normally associated with mystery.  Of course I was intrigued!  It’s just King’s style to keep readers guessing, exploring new genres, and surprising his fans with consistently great books. I thought  Joyland was no exception.

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Although Joyland is presented as a crime novel, it is much more than that, again in keeping with King’s versatile writing style.  It incorporates many different stories into a mysterious murder investigation.  It’s a coming-of-age story, a story about a hero bound to change and save lives, a history on carnivals and carny traditions, and there’s even a bit of clairvoyance (which proves to be pivotal to the story).  Reviewers have not been kind to King and this new endeavor of his, I try not to let that guide my decisions in choosing new books to read. I really enjoyed this book, it was fun – and an exciting summer read!

The story begins with Devin Jones, a 21 year old college student in search of a summer job.  He’s looking for a bit of adventure, as well as an escape from a dead-end relationship with his girlfriend.  He’s also drawn to the mysterious Joyland, a popular amusement park along the North Carolina coast.  It is here, just 4 years before his arrival, that a young woman was murdered on one of the most popular rides.  The mystery of how this young woman was murdered by her date while riding Horror House, is intriguing, as is the cast of characters that work this amusement park.

One of the most interesting characters is the park’s palm reader.  With a fake accent, and what many believe a fake “gift” of clairvoyance, she predicts Dev’s future:

“Are you practicing your act?”

She drew herself up to her full height, which might have been five-two.  “Is no act, my lad.”  She said ect for act.  “Jews are the most psychically sensitive race on the earth.  This is a thing everyone knows.”  She dropped the accent.  “Also, Joyland beats hanging out a palmistry shingle on Second AVenue.  Sorrowful or not, I like you.  You give off good vibrations.”

“One of my very favorite Beach Boys songs.”

“But you are on the edge of great sorrow.”  She paused, doing the old emphasis thing.  “And, perhaps, danger.”

“Do you see a beautiful woman with dark hair in my future?”  Wendy was a beautiful woman with dark hair.

“No,” Rozzie said, and what came next stopped me dead.  “She is in your past.”

The most important element of this prediction comes a little later, which proves to be a foreshadowing of what comes later in Dev’s stay at Joyland.  But it’s here, at the beginning, that he starts to consider moving on from this bad relationship, who throughout the book he wonders if this girlfriend ever really loved him.  Most of the others who work the park pay no attention to Rozzie’s readings, but this experience has really sticks with Dev.

Near the end, it was impossible to put this book down.  Any fan of King’s will enjoy this one – and if you haven’t considered reading one of his many books, it’s time to start!

Any King books I need to add to my must-read list?