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on 7 January 2011
Perhaps the main problem with the book is its use of the word 'outliers' to refer to exceptional people, individuals who achieve so much more than others. It should instead refer to the exceptional circumstances that allowed them their meteoric rise to success. These factors - such as year and era of birth, family background, race and place of education - contain the quirks of fate that allow the merely talented to achieve the successes that lie so far outside the norm. This is Gladwell's major thesis.

Gladwell's target is the traditional American story of success: rugged individuals, by dint of hard work and raw talent - perspiration and inspiration - achieve those magnificent success levels that elude others. Instead, Gladwell wants to show the place of circumstances and situation in this story. He wants to give success a context beyond that of one man and his willpower. Fair enough.

In order to do this, Gladwell tells some stories of his own. Lots of them, in fact. The book is one, big collection of counter-cultural stories about the nature of specifically American success. By 'counter-cultural' I mean contrary to the 'rugged individual' myth described above. This story-method is Gladwell's greatest strength or weakness, depending of what you're looking for. Me, I wanted to read something fascinating, provocative, and launch-pad like. That's exactly what I got.

Most of Gladwell's detractors find his method of extreme induction - "Here's one case so that means there's a pattern" - infuriating. I find in fun. When I read a Gladwell book, I'm not on the lookout for rigorous sampling methods or objective self-criticism. Let's leave that to university textbooks, can't we? Gladwell does pop journalism with ideas and trends. He's a beginning, a warm-up guy, a threshold-guardian of atypical info. You don't need to take him more seriously than that.

That said, my lingering sense after finishing the book was one of anticlimax. OK, so now we know that as well as talent and effort, success also requires of us a massive amount of good fortune and opportunity. So what exactly can I do about it? Beyond vague pleas for someone - Big government? The education system? - to take this wider context into account, there's not much we as individuals can do about it.

Or maybe there there is. Throughout the book Gladwell does flag up a couple of possibilities. He just doesn't do too much with them, that's all. That's what frustrated me the most with the book.

For instance, Gladwell spends some time taking the IQ industry to task. He points out some examples of people with incredibly high IQ levels who haven't made been successful. So far, so trite. Gladwell sexes up this observation by juicy piece of compare and contrast (chapter 4). In one corner, entre Chris Langan, in IQ terms a genius, but in success terms a flop. In the other corner, there's J Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and director of the Manhattan Project. The difference? Oppenheimer had charm, excellent communication skills, and 'social knowledge'. And where did this come from? His comfortable, suburban, upper-middle class background.

It's here that I want to scream. My mind is shouting, "Write about emotional intelligence! Tell them that social skills and communication can be learned! Mention Howard Gardner, or at least Daniel Goleman!" But no. Instead, we get one footnote, two sentences, about the work of Robert Sternberg (p. 290). Way to go, Malcolm. Not. Here's a prime chance to sow the seeds of personal development, but instead you pour on the cement of social conditioning and class consciousness. Again, nothing for us to do.

Another example is Gladwell's handling of the 10,000 hour rule (chapter 2), formulated by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson. According to this rule, 10,000 hours is the amount of practise required before a human being can lay claim to mastery or expertise in an activity. Even if you're a genius like Mozart, you still have to pump in those hours. Gladwell illustrates this rule with the Beatles (performing together) and Bill Gates (programming).

Only problem is, he then goes on to describe how a very specific and unique set of circumstances allowed them to notch up those hours, factors that Joe Bloggs public - that's you and me, folks - just couldn't contrive. Still, it made me wonder whether I've chalked up anything near 10,000 hours honing a particular skill. The best I could come up with was reading. Does that count?

Anyway, I give the book three out of five stars for entertainment value, quality of journalism, mental stimulation, and idea-gathering. For my taste, there's a little too much, 'me, me, me' in Outliers; Gladwell needs to untangle his brain from his own hype. But his main problem is that the book is discouraging, leavening us little to do beyond wonder if we were born on the wrong time and place to achieve a level of success that lies outside the mean.

Outliers is a book of pretty analysis, that's for sure. I just don't know what I'm supposed to do with it. And for a book about success, that's a pretty tragic flaw.
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Outlier is a term used in statistics for a data point that stands out from the rest of the sample and this book is about the outliers of success. Near the beginning of the book the author says "... there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success." There is always more to success than the magical, in-built brilliance of the successful and that is being at the right place, at the right time, having the right background, having the right mix of talents and being prepared to work hard with those talents.

This book is a series of anecdotal articles on success with some interesting insights. It is not a rigorous analysis and it has not found a new Law of Success.

If you are a young little league Canadian hockey player and you are good at the game make sure that your birthday comes just after the cut-off point of the annual selection date. That way you will be one of the oldest in the next year's selection. If you are a talented musician, work very very hard at your craft. If you were a New York lawyer make sure that you graduate when the type of business skills required is changing so that you can get in before the old established firms have time to come to terms with the new world. If you are interested in computer programming be of an age when mainframes make way for time-sharing machines so that you can get direct, un-mediated experience. If you are going to be clever, do not have an IQ off the scale but just a very good one and balance it with a good emotional; and social intelligence.

Halfway through the book the author says: "Can we learn something about why people succeed and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural legacies seriously?" If you are from the American South shake off the historical shadow of the honour code. If you are a Korean co-pilot abandon your deference to hierarchy and be direct and forthright in your language during a flight emergency. If you are a school kid who is good at maths and science ensure that you come from a culture that values hard work over long school holidays playing sport and just hanging-out.

Enjoy this book as a series of articles on the subject of success. In many ways it is a useful read, giving a broader and more realistic view of the subject but do not use it as a game plan for your life.

Some of the books referenced by the author in this book:
Culture's Consequences Geert Hofstede
Successful Intelligence Robert Sternberg
Unequal Childhoods Annette Lareau
Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry Paul Andrew
Birth and Fortune Richard Easterlin
The Ethnic Myth Stephen Steinberg
The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools Kenneth Gold
Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America David Hackett Fischer
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on 2 June 2016
I suppose the King of Entrepreneurs is an outlier too: It's All About the Deal: The amazing stories behind the King of Entrepreneur's success, ...and how you can succeed too. and thus I found this an very interesting read. I have read all of Malcolm Gladwell's great books and this is no exception. It opened my eyes to how people obtain their success. I might disagree with a few of the points he makes and my book will testify to that because it is a true story about a real ordinary boy who becomes a multi-millionaire.
That being said Outliers is a very interesting book. Gladwell has taken a really good realistic look at success and how it comes about. It is the kind of book that can be read in one sitting or savoured as a beside read when the mood takes. I will likely read it again in a few years.
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on 17 December 2008
A criticism common to both Malcolm Gladwell's previous books, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, was that while they were packed with interesting, well told, anecdotes there was no consistent underlying theme to the stories; no particular lesson to be drawn. For example, of the many anecdotes recounted about "thin slicing" some (such as an art expert's ability to instantly assess the bona fides of a statue) suggested it was a special and important skill while others (an impulsive police decision to pursue and shoot dead a innocent bystander) suggested quite the opposite. You were left with the impression that, well, there are these things called snap judgements, and sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don't.

Clearly Malcolm Gladwell has taken those reservations to heart: in Outliers he has been scrupulous to sketch out an integrated underlying thesis and then (for the most part) array his anecdotes - which, as usual, are interesting enough - in support of it.

Unfortunately for him, the theory is a lemon. Nonetheless, the flyleaf is hubristic (and unimaginative) enough to claim "This book really will change the way you think about your life". It's not done that for me, but it has changed the way I think about Malcolm Gladwell's writing. And not for the better.

Gladwell has looked at some psychological research into success and genius and has concluded that, contrary to conventional wisdom, success isn't to be explained by raw talent. The evidence suggests that genuinely exceptional performers, in whatever field - these are the titular "outliers" - can be identified by a combination of unique and unusual *opportunity* and *commitment* to achieve. It isn't talent, but graft and the odd lucky break. Hmm.

A common thread, Gladwell claims, is that most "world class experts", be they "composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, what have you ..." have put in 10,000 hours of practice before really achieving success. So, as the paradigm case goes, the Beatles weren't just in the right place at the right time (though clearly they were), but were instead preternaturally prepared for it by their grueling stint playing hundreds of eight-hour shows in Hamburg, an experience which afforded them both the necessary period of time and unusual opportunity to gain musical proficiency.

The first quibble here is to note that (even allowing for the patent fantasy that the Beatles played eight-hours non stop each night), on Gladwell's own figures, the Hamburg experience - which didn't involve Ringo Starr - still left the band roughly 8,000 hours short of their necessary 10,000. In any case attributing the Beatles' success to their (undisputed) musical proficiency indicates the degree to which Gladwell misses the point, both about rock 'n' roll (wherein neither concerted effort nor musical acumen has often had much to do with initial commercial success - just ask Elvis or the Rolling Stones) and the quality of the data itself. Gladwell's theory suffers from survivor bias: it starts with an undisputed result (the Beatles - clearly an outlier) and works back looking for evidence to support its hypothesis and takes whatever is there: easy enough to do since the "evidence" is definable only in terms of the subsequently occuring success. In less polite circles this is called revisionism.

There will, after all, be no record of the poor loser who spent 10,000 hours at his fretboard and who squandered a wealth of opportunity through ineptitude or bad luck, because, by definition, he never caught the light. Even if you grant Gladwell his theory - and I'm not inclined to - the most that can be said is that he's found a *correlation* between graft and success. But to confuse correlation with causation is a cardinal sin of interpretation (see Stephen Jay Gould's splendid The Mismeasure of Man for a compelling explanation of this fallacy) unless you have independent supporting grounds to justify the causal chain. Gladwell offers none: The Fab Four (well, Fab Three plus Pete Best) may have become a tighter band in Germany, but as Gladwell acknowledges there were many Liverpool bands in Hamburg at the time, all presumably clocking up eight hours non-stop (yeah, right) per night, and none of the others made the cover of Rolling Stone then, or has done since.

Much of the rest of Gladwell's patter is similarly glib: look at any "success story" long enough and you're bound to find something in its past you can designate as the crucial 10,000 hours. But to imply - as Gladwell seems to - that it isn't special talent but nothing more than sheer grit and unique opportunity that creates Outliers seems fatuous, and liable to needlessly encourage a class of plodders who will end up very disappointed (and resentful of M. Gladwell, Esq.) in 10 years' time. It struck me when I listened to him speak in London last month that the 10,000 hours might just as easily be confirmation, rather than falsification, of the presence of raw talent. If you take two violinists, one tone deaf and the other unusually gifted, all else being equal, who is more likely to stick at it for the ten years it takes to achieve concert level proficiency?

To be sure there are some fascinating lessons to be drawn here, but precisely at the point where Gladwell allows himself to drift off the moorings of his underlying theory: ethnic theory of plane crashes, which seemed to establish very little about outliers even on his argument, is cogent (and in these melting markets, timely) caution as to the risks of autocratic behaviour. Towards the end of the book Gladwell reaches some uneasy conclusions that, based on the extraordinary results of Asian schoolchildren in mathematics, that US schools should effectively abandon summer holidays and have children attend school all year round, like they might if they were working in a rice paddy. I'm not convinced that more school (as opposed to better parenting) is the answer.

It was my fortune to be reading Steve Gould's classic tome on scientific sceptism at the same time I read (and listened to) Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell's prescriptions are analogous with the flawed IQ testing programmes Gould so elegantly takes to task: the hypothesis comes first, and the intellectual process behind it is the search for evidence in support of it rather than a dispassionate attempt to falsify. It is hard to imagine how one would go about falsifying (or proving, other than anecdotally) Gladwell's theory and even harder to conceive what prospective use Gladwell's learning, if true, could be. Seeing as the "golden opportunities" can only be identified with hindsight - once your outlier is already lying out there, this feels like the sort of junk science with all the trappings - and utility - of 20:20 rear vision.

Olly Buxton
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VINE VOICEon 28 December 2008
I'm a fan of Malcolm Gladwell having read his previous Blink and The Tipping Point. All his books are about interesting topics and are told in a way that keeps the reader engaged. Similarly to the other books the criticism can always be made that he makes about 4-5 valid points and stretches them out to a full book but when the writing is engaging and takes you on a journey it doesn't really matter.

The book itself takes you through what drives success. Arguing that it's a combination of intelligence (both IQ and emotional intelligence), luck (opportunties and timing), cultural context and hard work (the much-reported 10,000 hours). All this could be argued to be fairly obvious but through the examples and anecdotes Gladwell dispelled many myths at the same time as entertaining.

All-in-all a good read.
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on 3 February 2009
I thought this was a fascinating look into stories of success. What's key to notice is that although Malcolm Gladwell claims, or at least suggests, that he's looking at things scientifically, what he's really doing is telling stories. For instance, he doesn't really pin down what he means by success in the book, which makes the whole thing a bit tricky.

Really interesting though, would recommend it.
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on 9 January 2012
The book is composed of short stories, some of them are quite inspring, some are not. But on the whole, I would say this book is worth reading. It does make me think.
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on 6 November 2011
As usual I do enjoy Gladwell's easy-going style of writing. It's just that this particular book lacks cohesiveness, even if there is a theme, that leads me to downgrade it to an honest rating of three stars.

In effect this is a book about Gladwell himself. The last chapter is fascinating and is perhaps the best written : it is the story about his family backgroud and history. It has all the ingredients of what really makes an outlier which we have been taught in previous chapters.... here is someone with sufficient intelligence and with drive and opportunity who is making it big in book sales with media spin-offs. And, quite frankly, this success is largely deserved because Gladwell has made the most of his opportunities.

However, I'm afraid I don't really buy into all the conclusions reached. The pseudo-scientific approach which the book adopts using statistical evidence often seems rigged to fit into whatever he is trying to describe. As others have pointed out there is a tendency to have 20/20 hindsight. Some of the stories seem dubious like that of Louis and Regina Borgenicht. If 40 small children's aprons sell for $0.10 and 15c apiece the maximum you could clear would be $6.00. Then we are told $125.00 was spent buying materials to make 120 aprons ,this time for adults. They would have to have sold these aprons for well over $1.00 apiece - a very large sum in those days - to make any profit. Maths is my weak subject, but something seems amiss here. Unfortunately, it somehow leads me to doubt so much else in this book.
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Malcolm Gladwell points out the obvious. Or what should have been the obvious. Using statistics and a type of insight, he finds that to be successful there is a minimum of natural ability and downright luck. Even them it does not guarantee want Malcolm supposed success is.

This book is a fun and easy to read book. But do not let it fool you into thinking that this is light reading or just the popular science of the day. There is a dead serious theory that appears to really apply (split infinitives allowed here.) Knowing this theory will help you to make the requirements for success instead of just guessing at them.

At least I came away with a different paradigm, and now see everything in the world differently.

It has been suggested that regardless of the factors in this book that one may be content with a job that fits his/her value-system.

I must have been schizophrenic in a job sense. In the U.S. Army and Reserves, I well enjoyed being a mechanic and power systems maintenance sergeant. While at the same time, I was a business/engineering systems analyst in the civilian world. So this book helps me look back to see how I found myself in the situation.

With a little bit of blooming luck.

How to Lie with Statistics
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on 4 February 2009
Malcolm Gladwell, I learned from his website, is a writer for the New Yorker. His website has an archive of his New Yorker articles.

I found "Outliers" an interesting read, starting off with the theme that successful people happen to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right talent, the right motivation and the right accumulation of experience already under their belt. From then the book jumps around, each chapter having an interesting theme but without much connection with the other chapters. The last chapter recounts how Malcolm Gladwell's mother, born and raised in Jamaica, eventually came to live in a beautiful house on a hill in the Canadian countryside.

I got the feeling I was reading a succession of "New Yorker" articles, each one interesting but slightly superficial - and with no common theme being built up.

Overall, I was disappointed and felt that the book had been oversold. The back cover says:

"This book will change the way you think about your life. And it will challenge you to make the most of your own potential".

In my view, that is simply overselling the book. It provided a pleasant read, whiling away a couple of evenings, but no more than that.
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