Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

by Jun 3, 2012Uncategorized2 comments

Outliers: The Story of Success
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoroughly enjoyed this easy read. Gladwell does have quite the knack for finding interesting stories and weaving them into a narrative supporting his thesis. I particularly enjoyed the illustration from Gladwell’s parents’ life. The excerpt from his mother’s book about being forced to confront her own racism and forgive someone else’s—that was very powerful.

If Gladwell is right that cultural legacies shape us—for good and ill—more than our individualistic Western mindsets have heretofore allowed, then it can only be fruitful to ask myself questions like these: How has my cultural legacy shaped me? In what ways might my success (as God defines it!) be hindered by my inherited assumptions? It’s very hard to answer these questions, very hard to look at the air you breathe.

I did find myself a little skeptical about the tidiness of the argument, though certainly not wise or knowledgeable enough to offer counterarguments or even to quite know where I should do so. That would require some serious cross-disciplinary expertise, a testimony to Gladwell’s own work ethic. A quick check of the Wikipedia article on Outliers, however, revealed some caveats about the book given by people more familiar with the fields Gladwell covered.

I thought of just one counterargument… So (many) Asians come from rice-growing cultures in which work is very hard, very complex, and yet very rewarding—and that (along with the Chinese way of naming numbers) makes them more adept at math. But is this true of students at higher levels than secondary education? Do Chinese Math PhDs outstrip American ones either in quantity (per capita) or quality? An honest question.

Everyone seems to acknowledge, caveats aside, that Gladwell is a fantastically engaging writer who offers a slightly different take on the world than we’re all used to. That’s valuable, even if his conclusions are someday superseded by the next wave of best-selling journalistic insights.

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  1. Andrea

    [Mom brag warning! 🙂 It relates to the book. Really!]

    After hearing of the 10,000 hours idea in Gladwell’s book, our son Evan, who only began playing double bass about 2.5 years ago, divided up those hours as needed to achieve his dream of becoming a professional orchestral double bassist in his 20’s. He found a good teacher and began practicing.

    Most string players begin at a younger age. Many have already been playing 10 years by the time they hit the age that Evan began at age 16.

    This spring he was accepted by Oberlin Conservatory, Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory, The Juilliard School in NYC and the Cleveland Institute of Music (and BJU and others!).

    He has been practicing 4-5 hours a day for quite a while now. What some folks told him was probably not going to be possible now looks distinctly possible.

    So, it’s just what I’ve observed here at home, but I think there is something to the 10,000 hours principle. We’ll see!

    Of course, it has to be coupled with mindfulness and problem solving capabilities and a healthy dose of internal motivation. I’m sure the argument is not as tidy in every field, nor for every person. And I realize that Gladwell includes some other factors in his thoughts, like simply being born into the “right time” for the skills you have.

    I enjoy Gladwell’s writing, too, and was happy to see this review.

  2. Mark L. Ward, Jr.

    Your bragging is forgiven, because it’s not on Facebook but on an obscure blog of which you constitute half the readership. If a mom brags in the forest, and there’s only one other person there to hear it, it’s not as bad a sin.

    Yeah, that 10,000-hour figure grabbed me, too. It coincides with a thought I’ve had that it might be wise to focus on what I’ve already naturally found myself investing hours in rather than trying—at this late date—to develop new competencies.