Book Review Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

February 5, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell knows how to tell a good story, but his books (Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers) make me a bit impatient. “Get to the point,” I want to tell him. In Outliers, Gladwell’s point is this: Those on far edges of the bell curve—either the far right (totally at the top end of their profession, like Bill Gates and The Beatles) or the far left (totally at the tragic end of the curve like Korean Airlines, who own one of the worst crash records)—are largely the product of their cultures, advantages, and opportunities. Skill and intelligence, in other words, may not be the primary drivers of success.

Gladwell notes that Bill Gates grew up in an upper-class community, and his school was one of the few to have a computer terminal. Gates and others who, at that age and time, had similar access to computers dominate the technology industry today. With The Beatles, it’s more of a case that practice makes perfect. They had an opportunity to play as a group together more than 1100 times in public before becoming famous—far more audience exposure than most entertainers get in an entire career.

Being the right age as the world is entering a new phase of development can be your lottery ticket to huge success, according to Gladwell. You have to be old enough to take advantage of the innovation and not so old that the risk of jumping-in seems perilous.
In The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb would have us believe that the only thing that is certain is that the unpredictable will happen, so it may be too early to say that the Green Movement will be the next success-maker, but I think it shows some promise.

Outliers and The Black Swan—like Freakonomics and Made to Stick—rely on systems thinking (without calling it that), cognitive bias, and empirical skepticism to draw conclusions about why things are not as they may first appear. If you like good storytelling, you will definitely enjoy Outliers, but if you’re looking for more take-away points per page, you may wind up skimming some of it.

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