Outliers: Successful Individuals Explained

Stacy Graiko

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell *** / 3 of 5 stars
Enjoyable Reading: 4/5
Applicable to Business: 2/5
Behavioral Insight: 2/5

At Sentient, we refer to some of the books we review as “airport books”: the books prominently displayed in the business section of the wood-paneled faux bookstores at every airport, big and small, across the country and beyond. They appeal to business travelers (myself included), promising a quick read and perhaps new information acquired in the sky between JFK and ORD. The books’ availability isn’t limited to airports, but because we often pick them up there, it’s become our shorthand term for such books. We certainly don’t use the phrase disparagingly – in fact, some of our favorite books are “airport books” – Outliers being the newest favorite to top our list.

“Outlier” is a term used in research statistics to describe data that lie outside normal parameters. In this book Gladwell explores people who are outliers—men and women who are so extraordinarily outside of the norm that they cause the rest of us to wonder what they have that we don’t. On his website (www.malcolmgladwell.com) Gladwell claims this book is more focused on people than The Tipping Point and Blink! And in fact, we found this to be the case: Outliers references dozens of people, grouped into categories like professional hockey players, Asian schoolchildren, and billionaires. The book is filled with biographical accounts of their lives, which, to a biography buff like me, is quite appealing and makes for an easy read. True to our shorthand, the book is easily digested on a flight (but perhaps not in its entirety if you’re just on a short hop).

One of Gladwell’s key themes is that individual success is not an anomaly – it can be explained by those people and the culture surrounding the individual. For example, his group of billionaires has these things in common: they were born during the same timeframe, and had similar upbringings. His group of successful, corporate lawyers all attended schools in the same geographic region and had parents involved in the same industry. So, you might ask, does this mean success is beyond our control? Is it hopeless to think I can become a professional hockey player without the benefit of commonalities with this group? Gladwell doesn’t make this claim, but the book puts forth the idea that success often happens because of things the individual has no control over, such as time of birth and family history.

Gladwell acknowledges that inner talent exists, but says that what causes some people to pull ahead of others is the hard work that person puts into his or her craft. In fact, he’s put a number on it: Gladwell claims 10,000 hours is the magic number of practice hours required to surpass others and rise to the top as a star. With some natural talent, and a lot of hard work, the likelihood of becoming a superstar is increased. He substantiates this argument with examples like Mozart, who started writing music at the age of six, and Bill Gates, who started programming in the eighth grade. Their earliest forays were not stellar; but they started a precedent that allowed them to gain momentum from a young age and surpass their peers.  To use an example from a perhaps more typical life, the ballet lessons I started at age 8 and continued once a week for an hour until I was 10, together with recitals and practice at home, add up to roughly 328 hours.  Had I continued dancing through the end of high school, I would have logged about 1804 cumulative hours by the time I turned 18.  At this rate, it would have taken me about 61 years to achieve superstar status.  To accomplish the goal efficiently, I would have had to practice 1000 hours a year for 10 years – or about 19 hours a week – at my craft.  Possible?  Sure.  Probable?  Not for most people I know.

So how do these two ideas tie together in a cohesive argument? As an example, Gladwell argues the extensive practice hours accomplished musicians put in coupled with strong support from family and ample resources such as time and money to pursue their craft, are both necessary to achieve greatness.  This may sound like a rather basic – and not surprising premise.  To be sure: it’s not an earth-shattering piece of research, and it left us wondering about the importance of the book: why did Gladwell see fit to write it?  How does the book contribute to our knowledge of nature vs. nurture?  Is it anything more than an old story, told in a new tone of voice?

One final note on reading the book: Gladwell is self-admittedly obsessed with plane crashes and writes about them at length near the end of the book. My advice to you: save the final chapters for when you’re safely on land. You’ll thank me for this.

Read more about Gladwell’s experience of researching the book on his website: www.malcolmgladwell.com.

As always, your opinions are welcome- please let us know what you thought of the book or our review by commenting here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *