Sunday, July 19, 2009

#94 - "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

I'd already read Blink and The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and I found them pretty interesting and fast reading. So it only made sense to put Outliers (2008), Gladwell's latest book, on hold as well. Although there were still some interesting stories and fascinating case studies in Outliers, I also found it the most tenuous, least interesting, and most frustrating out of all his books. I have a feeling this is simply because I know more--and have more opinions--about intelligence, success, and lawyers than I do about his previous topics of discussion. Much like Bill Maher, when I agree with Gladwell, he's great fun to read, but when I don't, his lack of precision and ambiguity in data drive me crazy.

Gladwell's thesis is that although society assumes that people's success stems primarily from innate talent and hard work, if you look closer, you will see that extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity. First Gladwell looks at the importance of what month you are born in when it comes to success in life. Professional Canadian hockey players are much more likely to be born in the first three months of the year (January, February, March) than the last three months. The reason is that the age cut-off date for young teams is the beginning of the year. So, the children born in January are as much as eleven or twelve months older than some of their peers with the related size, coordination and fitness that comes with age; this gives them an advantage when it comes to playing in the best leagues, for the best teams, the best coaches and getting the most practice time. The same thing is seen with performance and children in the school system.

Gladwell brings up a number of examples in a similar vein, none as compelling as his Canadian hockey players, including Bill Gates, Bill Joy, The Beatles, and Jewish lawyers in New York. I definitely think Gladwell makes a point that a lot of these people were in the right time at the right place, but it's impossible to determine how much of their success stemmed directly from their talent, hard work, and own initiative and how much was opportunity. Gladwell brings up the point that Bill Gates was lucky enough to go to a high school with a computer back in 1968. But there were hundreds of other children going to that same high school, with the same opportunity; by itself, it doesn't explain Bill Gates' success.

I also got a little bored reading about lawyers in New York. Perhaps my law degree and subsequent experience and job searching has made me cynical, but I don't define success as being a lawyer, or even making a lot of money. Although it was interesting to hear about the rampant and overt discrimination in the 1950's and 1960's, I didn't want to hear about the wonderfully successful corporate lawyers doing aggressive merger and acquisitions work. Ugh, I didn't even like writing that sentence.

The second section of the book moves on to cultural legacy, which included some pretty interesting descriptions and explanations of plane accidents and how pilots from cultures deferential to hierarchy could contribute to these accidents.

My main problem with this book is that I was looking for something a little more explanatory and then Gladwell didn't have enough interesting stories to distract me from his lack of substance. Besides showing some examples of how chance and opportunity can affect people's lives and a short but interesting discussion of culture, there's not much there. Gladwell discounts hard work and talent to make his points and then ignores psychology completely--something that I would guess would have a lot to do with success in life. To be fair, the second half of the book was not discussing lawyers, so I found it much more interesting. I also appreciated Gladwell's wish to equalize opportunities in order to allow more people with talent and will to succeed, but I didn't feel like I really gained an understanding of his subject.

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