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57 of 62 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very pretty. But, can it fight?, 7 Jan. 2011
This review is from: Outliers: The Story of Success (Paperback)
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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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Oct 2011 13:06:18 BDT
Great review. Please take your 10,000 hours of reading and write more.

I disagree on your final point that a book about success should give you insight on how to get more success yourself. There are plenty of useless "self help" business success books around that promise short cuts and flawed analysis for lazy people. The analysis in this book is stronger because it doesn't fall into this trap. But I agree referencing EQ and "The Dip" as further reading would have been a nice touch.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Oct 2011 20:55:48 BDT
Allen Baird says:
Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Yes, some self-help books out there are designed for the lazy, in that they offer schemas for success that are either regurgitated Greek or sparkly iron pyrite. More fool them!

But should a book on success provide insights that are personally applicable?

True, it is our responsibility to apply principles to our own situation. But at the real risk of sounding pretentious, let me quote you my main man Wittgenstein. "The use of a word in practice is its meaning." In other words, if you can't apply something then you don't really know that it means.

So if we read a book on success and are unable to apply it to our own lives, this could be for two reasons. Either the reader hasn't properly understand what was read, or the author didn't properly grasp the topic about which they wrote.

As you can see from my review, I did my darnedest to squeeze any drop of application that I could from Gladwell's book. I strained my brain over it. I sat at his feet waiting for wisdom. Instead, I got backache and a few nice stories.

Gladwell writes pretty, yes. Cubic zirconia are pretty, too. You just can't do much with them beside gaze. You aren't supposed to.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Oct 2011 12:00:50 BDT
Thanks for your thoughtful and balanced analysis, Allen. I enjoyed the book in terms of insight and the de-bunking of certain stereotypes of success and I suppose wasn't looking to take it further. The missing EQ link was agood observation. Supposing we take the view that Gladwell is a good man to stir things up and then hopefully others can take things forward using his observations as a platform. On the basis of your careful review maybe you could be one of those others but quite possibly you already have a day job!

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jan 2012 19:45:10 GMT
Allen Baird says:
Thanks, K C Delaney, I'd love to take you up on your generous job offer. Unfortunately, I was born on the wrong month, so my success would be limited...

Posted on 22 Feb 2013 07:59:07 GMT
I came to this last of all your reviews - and as I've commented before, I do thank you for such thorough, reasoned, and evidenced arguments. However, I do find myself in some disagreement with you over this review. I should say first that Goleman is to me what TH White is to you, so we probably don't start from the same position! My recollection of this book is that Gladwell is tackling a myth (in both senses of the word - something that is believed, and something that isn't true) that people can 'bootstrap', that success is there for the taking if we only try hard enough. He points out not simply the enormous role of practice, but, more importantly, the enormous role of luck: accidents of birth (time of year, social class, position in the business cycle) put people in a position in which their talents can be rewarded. Without those accidents, the talents won't come through. For me that lesson is more than enough to justify the book.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Feb 2013 20:03:41 GMT
Allen Baird says:
My Loveday, we meet again. Hello!

I feel the need to lay my cards out on the table here, by way of two confessions.

Confession one. I rate Goleman more highly than Gladwell. Gladwell is a journalist, a celebrity writer. Goleman, while not a tenured academic, at least has a PhD is psychology. He is not the founder or `discoverer' of Emotional Intelligence, but he is close to the sources, and has a gift not only for popularising, but also clarifying, systematizing and applying that Gladwell completely lacks.

Confession two. This is a biggy. I actually believe in the `bootstrap' myth as you put it, or the Horatio Alger myth. Instead, I believe it is a myth (an ideology) that rags-to-riches is a myth. I realise that this makes me a sort of heretic in today's UK, where every failure must be explained/justified in terms of socio-economic factors. But I see so many pointable instances of that very phenomenon, and even more of its opposite i.e. people who don't succeed in life due to nothing other than lack of aspiration and resilience.

So, in terms of the book, Langan's fault wasn't lack of opportunity. (He got to college, didn't he?) His problem was that once he got there, he acted like a dick; NOT deficiency in opportunity, but excess in hubris. Talent will find or make a way; otherwise, it isn't talent, its wishful thinking.

Posted on 13 Feb 2015 20:23:42 GMT
D. V. S. says:
A most excellent review, Allen. You're a Maven.
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