Malcolm Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point and Blink, two books that, in my estimation, became popular shortly after they were released. Outliers: The Story of Success is the first book of Malcolm Gladwell’s that I’ve read. I am left with the feeling that there is some wisdom in what this author has written. I would be interested in reading more of his work.
That being said, I also found Outliers to be somewhat distressing. It is the type of book that takes what everyone thinks they know about the world, and turns it on it’s head. The new idea, of course, is backed up with facts, data, and explanations that do make sense.
I’m left with the feeling I had when I was a kid. I’d grown up enough to realize that Santa Claus wasn’t real. But, I still wanted to feel the comfort I’d attached to that idea even after I’d gained the knowledge that it was all a fantasy. Some of what this book revealed shattered an illusion I wanted to hold on to for a while longer.
Obviously, Outliers is not about Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, or any of the other stories we tell children in order to give them something to positive believe in. Instead, the book focuses on the “outliers”. In the book, Gladwell provides the following definition of “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.
In “plain English”, an “outlier” is a person who is among the “best and the brightest”, the small group of people who are much more successful than their peers. Malcolm Gladwell asks the reader “What makes these high achievers different?” The book explains the answer to that question.
There are two main concepts that stuck with me after I finished reading this book. One is that when we think of a person who is an “outlier” (such as Bill Gates, for example) we tend to focus on their personality. What is that person like? What is it about that person that made him so successful? Can I become just as successful by doing things in the way that he does them?
The other main concept that I took from this book is that we are not paying attention to the right things when we try and figure out what made a specific person so successful. Instead of focusing on one person, what we really need to do is take into consideration that person’s background, their culture, and the way the world was when they happened to reach what turned out to be an important age.
One example that I keep thinking about has to do with hockey players in Canada. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know very much about hockey. That’s ok, because Gladwell’s explanation, combined with his data, is easy enough to follow even if you know absolutely nothing about hockey.
The players who eventually end up on the major league teams (for lack of a better phrase) didn’t get there by accident. The main factor that determines which kids get picked to play on the best team next year turned out to be the month they were born in. The eligibility cut-off for age-class hockey in Canada is January 1. As a result, the kids born in January are bigger, and have had more time to develop their motor skills, than the kids born later in the year.
When the scouts come around to select players, they think they are choosing the players that are the most talented. In reality, unbeknownst to themselves, they pick the kids that are the biggest and who have had more time to develop their motor skills. They pick the kids with January birthdays much more often than the kids who were born in June or December.
This grows exponentially from there. The kids that got picked for the best team end up with more practice time than the kids who are on lesser teams. The extra practice gives them an advantage, and so they keep getting selected for the best teams.
This ties into the other big concept from the book. It is “The Ten-Thousand Hour Rule”. This rule states that it takes a person 10,000 hours of practice before they will become a success. It doesn’t matter if the thing they are practicing is playing hockey, playing the violin, or writing computer code. Whatever it is requires 10,000 hours of time and effort.
Whether or not you are able to get those 10,000 hours has a lot to do with whether you came from a rich or poor family. A rich family has the money to purchase a violin for their child, and to pay for the lessons (beyond what his or her school offers during the day).
They have time to make sure their child practices several hours a day. They have the type of job that allows for at least one adult to get off of work to bring their child to and from lessons and to attend recitals. This child has plenty of opportunity to get those necessary 10,000 hours in – starting from the moment he decides to learn to play the violin.
A poor family, on the other hand, doesn’t have the money to offer that opportunity to their child. Let’s say a kid who desperately desires to become a violin player happens to attend a school that allows students to borrow an instrument without having to pay for it.
The child’s family still won’t have the money to pay for lessons beyond what is offered for free at the school. The child’s parents don’t have the type of jobs that let them be at home to keep track of how often their child practices or to take their child to recitals. This child might have to help prepare dinner, or do household chores, that the child from a richer family may not have to do. The child from the poor family is much less likely to reach the 10,000 hours of practice that are required before a person can become a success at something.
Put that all together, and I came away from Outliers feeling depressed. All this time, I’ve been told that if you work hard enough at something you will become successful at it. Keep going! Work hard! All that effort will result in success.
Outliers shatters the comforting illusion that an individual has any control at all over whether or not he or she will become successful at something. By the time you are able to read the book, your fate has long been sealed. Either you were born in the right month, or you will never be an adult who becomes an amazingly successful hockey player.
If you were born in poverty – it is extremely likely that you will never escape it, no matter how hard you work. Your peers, who were born into families that had more money than your family did, had access to advantages that you didn’t. You will never catch up to them, no matter how hard you practice.
You were either born at the perfect time to become an adult in a year where a specific skill set was exactly what was required in order to become successful, or you weren’t. You missed out by being born a few years too early or too late to hit a “window” that nobody could have foreseen as being important.
In addition to all of that, you also have to be lucky enough to have fallen into an opportunity that few others did, at the perfect moment, in order to develop a skill set that would help make you a success. Bill Gates, for example, went to a school that had the money to obtain a computer that students could use long before it was standard practice to have computers in schools. He just so happened to attend that school. This gave him the opportunity to start developing computer skills before many of the people his age could. It all snowballs from there – and Bill Gates ended up an extremely successful person.
This is not a book that I will re-read, in part, because I’d like to forget what I’ve learned. I was born in poverty, into a dysfunctional family that was full of chaos. No one could possibly get 10,000 hours of practice at anything in that household.
The internet, as we know it today, didn’t exist until after I’d graduated from college. As such, there is approximately zero chance that I will become a successful writer (who makes enough money from her writing to live a comfortable life). I was born too early, and into an environment that did not enable success. This blog that I put original content into as often as I am able will never make me any money. My fate is sealed.
On second thought, maybe I won’t read more of Malcolm Gladwell’s work after all. I’m fairly certain that there is some useful wisdom to be found in his other books. Will the knowledge he shares make me feel better about my situation in life – or worse?
Outliers will be an encouraging read for the people who were born into rich families, at the right time, and who have had the kinds of opportunities that put them well on their way to reaching 10,000 hours of practice in something they love to do. They are going to come away from this book with the message that all they need to do is keep going and they will achieve success.
People like me, however, end up facing the fact that the deck was stacked against us from before we were born. To be clear, it is not Malcolm Gladwell’s fault that I wasn’t born under auspicious circumstances. He didn’t cause that. Neither did I. Nothing can change this.
Even so, I’d like my “security blanket” back. I miss the comfort of believing that if I just keep working, keep writing original, honest, fact-checked content, that I will eventually become a successful writer. Outliers showed me that this dream simply isn’t possible. There is no Santa Claus waiting to reward me with presents if I’m a good little girl who works hard. I wasn’t born at the right time.
The question that I am now left with is an existential one. Why should I continue to write? Perhaps the answer is that I’m closer to hitting the 10,000 hours of practice in writing than I am in anything else. The question I cannot answer is this one: Will it matter?
This book review of Outliers: The Story of Success – by Malcolm Gladwell is a post written by Jen Thorpe on Book of Jen and is not allowed to be copied to other sites.