Outliers Postmortem

Malcom Gladwell has...lost his marbles? OH HO HO

Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers was published in 2008, landing at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Ever since then I’ve seen references to it all over the Internet. In particular, blogs keep mentioning Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule.” So when I happened across it during an otherwise dull trip to Walmart, I snapped it up.

Outliers bills itself as “The Story of Success.” Gladwell examines a series of, well, outliers, people and companies notable for either extreme success or extreme failure. On the success side are the Beatles, Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, and some of the best hockey players in the world. On the failure side is Korean Air, which at one point was crashing so many of its planes, that a report on its crashes had to be amended because another plane had crashed before the report was finished. (Gladwell assures us they’re better now.)

His thesis is that success works differently than we expect. Typically we imagine success as a deeply personal phenomenon, a function of raw talent, passion, and work ethic. And while Gladwell acknowledges the importance of all these traits, he points us to other, less obvious factors.

Yes, Bill Gates was brilliant and driven. He also happened to be born at just the right time to take advantage of the computing boom (according to Gladwell, anyway). And he was one of the very few kids in the country with access to a mainframe terminal, which allowed him vastly more time for programming practice than his peers.

Gladwell returns to this theme over and over: success springs not just from who we are, but from our circumstances, the opportunities we’re given, even (to a surprising degree) our cultural background. He attributes the failure of Korean Air to a tendency in Korean culture to defer to authority, leading copilots to be less vocal about problems they notice.

When it comes to raw intelligence, he finds that mostly, you only need to be “smart enough.” Past a certain point, he says, extra IQ doesn’t correlate to extra success. (He cites Chris Langan, whose IQ soars in the 200 region, as an example of such a failed genius, though frankly that section of the book comes across as pretty condescending to Langan.)

A better indicator – according to Outliers – is the 10,000-hour rule, which says that to truly master any particular skill, you generally have to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. The Beatles and Bill Gates both succeeded by virtue of this rule.

I found the book insightful and provocative, but I had some problems with it.

First, it went a little slow for my taste. In every chapter, he pushes on and on with one example after another, delving into more and more details long after he’s made his point.

Second, in spite of the mountains of anecdotes and scientific-sounding data, I never felt like he was really testing out his hypothesis with any kind of systematic rigor. In the first chapter he talks about the surprising reason that so many hockey players are born in the first three months of the year (and it is an interesting reason), but his examples feel cherry-picked, overly specific. I expected him to say something like “In fact, if you examine the records of all NHL players over the last 30 years…” But he never did. That research seems like it would be pretty easy to do, which makes its absence even more surprising.

But the book lacks something else, even more important. I kept waiting for the moment when Gladwell would turn from his statistics and analyses and say, “Now, here’s how you can apply these principles to achieve success in your own life” – or even the more pessimistic, “So that’s why you’ll probably never succeed no matter how good you think you are.” Neither of these ever happened. Gladwell apparently feels that his readers want a book on success that does not tell them how to be successful.

Yes, I can look at his principles and figure out some ideas myself. The 10,000-hour rule, for instance, stands out as one of the few factors he mentions that I can actually apply (i.e., work hard). And understanding the role of cultural background might lead me to examine my own unconscious cultural biases, looking for ways they may be holding me back.

But I’ll have to do all that on my own, because Outliers isn’t interested in taking me there.

I don’t want to trash the book or its author. It was definitely an eye-opening read, and if you get a chance to check it out, you’ll learn a lot. I just think it could’ve been a lot better.

What have you been reading lately?

P.S. This is the last day to submit your question on Ask Brian Anything. No question is too strange, so ask now!

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8 responses to “Outliers Postmortem

  1. I hope Gladwell doesn’t take credit for coining the 10,000-hour rule, though I’ve noticed from a Google search that his name is the one that comes up. But I guess in 1993 someone completed a study of musicians and expertise and made the correlation. This explains why I had heard of the 10,000-hour rule prior to 2008.

    Here’s a link to a story about the original study: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/11/science/peak-performance-why-records-fall.html

  2. Recently I’ve been re-reading my novels from my little library (Interestingly enough, even after cleaning out all of the books I no longer read, it’s still as big as my parent’s library before they cleaned). THe novice by Trudie Canava, The wise man’s fear by Patrick Rothfuss, and re-reading Lyndsay’s poetry (And occasionally yours) On Elfwood. it’s a shame that the site is a ghost town now, because I would have loved to be able to talk and think through my stories with all those other authors.
    Oh well.
    Thanks for posting!

    • Elfwood’s a ghost town? That’s a shame…I haven’t been back in a long time, but I just assumed the community was still going strong.

      Maybe DeviantArt sapped some of their users…

      • that’s what I said too!
        I finally found it in 2011, but when I got on I found none of my comments ever got responses.
        Then I learned that you can check last logon date under user’s profile, and I started looking at all the writers I’d thought were pretty amazing. . . turns out most of them haven’t logged on in years, let alone uploaded something.
        Of course, this all happened after I made an account. figures.

        And to top it off you were the only one that had a “This is where I am now” link. I was very sad.

  3. I read a lot of books with similar problems. I just finished “Creating Minds”; It used seven examples of people to talk about the seven types of creativity, but the anecdotes dominated and drew away from the reason for the book, in my opinion. Still interesting, but not what I expected when I bought it.

    I’ve also just begun Don Quixote. I’m not entirely sure if it’s worth it, though- it kind of bores me in places. I’m also reading the Dragonlance novels (Legends right now), the poetry of T.S. Eliot (*yawn*… I think it’ll be a while before I can properly appreciate it), and a few assorted non-fiction books about a large variety of subjects, including sociology, mathematics, astronomy, and writing.

    Question: What was your K-12 education like? Did you get bullied a lot, did you get lots of homework, did your school still strap misbehaving students?

    • I read Don Quixote a few years ago. Liked the beginning, but thought it dragged on way too long. For the record, I don’t get T.S. Eliot yet either, but I’m willing to try The Waste Land again someday. Actually, there’s a pretty sweet iPad app for the poem, which I may have to get now that I’m remembering.

      Little or no bullying in my K-12 experience. I grew up in a small town, and people were (relatively) nice. I got a decent amount of homework, nothing excessive. I always got very good grades so I didn’t mind too much. Did the spelling bee, the academic quiz team, science olympiad. My only sport was tennis, for three years in high school; I did that mainly out of a sense of obligation to try new things, and I was bad at it. No beatings for students – I’m not quite that old. What about you?

      • Small town here, too. I get bullied, but not that much. I don’t get much homework- though that’s probably going to change next year- and my marks are good.

        Band four days a week at seven thirty in the morning is pretty much my only extracurricular. Other than sports, that’s about the only extracurricular there is. School’s fairly boring all-around.

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