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.
“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.
The 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!