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464 of 526 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Outlandish, 17 Dec 2008
This review is from: Outliers: The Story of Success (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-10 of 20 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Dec 2008 17:12:39 GMT
ce+sh9Me says:
Thanks for a very interesting review - like the book, your review was food for thought for me.

While I did vote your review worthwile, in the end, I have to disagree with it: the accusation of revisionism is simply unfair. The stories of the Beatles and Bill Gates and all the others simply serve as anecdotal evidence - which is what makes the book as readable and thus enjoyable as it is - and to my mind there's never been any suggestion that these stories should prove any hypothesis. They are illustration, not proof. The scientific meat on which the 10k hour rule is based is in the statistical studies of musicians, which Gladwell properly cites. Throughout the book, a wealth of scientific work is cited: the studies of musicians' training hours, the follow-up of children with extreme IQ scores, the math/endurance tests, the anger-management/birthgrounds tests, and much more. That's where you should find proof.

The ethnic theory of plane crashes indeed seems a bit out of place, mostly because Gladwell spent too few words integrating it into the rest of the story. It does fit the theme quite nicely though: it shows that we can explain why there are downward outliers by looking at their cultural context (and we can change how well they do, how's that for support of the theory!).

In the end, you took a different message from the book - I quote "to imply - as Gladwell seems to - that it isn't special talent but nothing more than sheer grit and unique opportunity that creates Outliers" - than I did. It's close, but still very different: what I read is that there is certainly a need for talent, but that there is such a thing as enough talent. While many others surpass that talent threshold, the outliers of our times have relied on unique opportunities that made them stand out. It's a happy message: it means that all we need to do is create more opportunities for our children, as it's not their talent that will limit them (as for your remark about better parenting - if you review the chapter, Gladwell suggests to shorten the summer break exactly for want of better parenting....).

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Dec 2008 23:32:10 GMT
Last edited by the author on 1 Jan 2009 18:04:37 GMT
Olly Buxton says:
Thanks for your thoughtful post.

We agree that Gladwell's evidence is anecdotal - but for me that's a bad thing: he tends to *extrapolate* from anecdotes to general rules. Generally, that's a bad idea.

If that were all he was doing - illustrating general theories by specific examples - I would agree with you that it is all harmless fun. But (and this gets to the intrinsic problems of "confirmation holism") Gladwell is selective about his examples (obviously, he doesn't mention examples which don't fit the theory - bad enough - but worse, even those he's chosen which do don't stand up to close examination, and he is obliged to wilfully construe the facts to even shoehorn them into the strictures of the theory). If the limited amount of data you *do* supply doesn't stack up, lord only knows what is out there in the data you haven't looked at. This criticism is equally valid for the social science Gladwell cites as for his own writing. I'm not inclined to take studies in social science as gospel (not after reading Snoop, by another social scientist cited with approval by Malcolm Gladwell, and certainly not after reading Stephen J. Gould's superb book "The Mismeasure of Man").

The Beatles didn't, actually, rack up 10,000 hours, not even by the time they broke up, let alone the time they had a hit with Please Please Me. Nor was their opportunity particularly unusual - as Gladwell notes, thanks to a canny Liverpudlian impresario there was a steady stream of Liverpool bands schlepping over to Hamburg for similar stints.

And nor, actually, did the Beatles' success have much to do with their musical expertise. To assume that any (let alone outlying) success is more than tangentially related to expertise is, in my experience, to utterly misunderstand human nature. The planet is bedecked with geniuses of all sorts in every field who never became outliers, and with ordinary (or even substandard) talents who, by being canny, or ruthless, or lucky, or better looking have found fame and fortune. If that is all Gladwell's point is, then I'm not sure what the 10,000 hours have to do with the price of fish, and the only award he deserves is for stating the blindingly obvious.

Another example, from a talk Gladwell gave which I attended in London, was even more illustrative: Fleetwood Mac, so he said, had been together for 10 years and had released something like sixteen albums before they hit it big with "Fleetwood Mac" and "Rumours". Theory proved? Well, No: A quick glance at Wikipedia tells us first that Fleetwood Mac was only together for seven years before hitting it big, and second that the album which broke through was the debut of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (between them lead guitar, lead vocals and about half the song writing). The only personnel common to the previous nine (not sixteen) albums were the drummer and bass player. In other words, the band was, for all intents and purposes, brand new.

And what are the "special opportunities" we should create to enable the 10,000 hours to pay off? Even if Gladwell is right about this (and I don't think so) they're not exactly easy to predict: would it occur to you, in 1960, to send your teenagers off for a summer working strip joints in Germany in the hope they became global musical superstars? In the pre-IBM PC days, (and even since!) would you feel proud that your kid was climbing out his bedroom window in the middle of the night to go play with a mainframe? Would you encourage that? Or would it concern you that he wasn't sneaking out to chase tail like every other well adjusted male of his age?

The sorts of opportunities Gladwell charts don't seem to come about from spending time in school, much less through the summer holidays. They seem elusive and unpredictable to say the least, or for the more cynical amongst us, like post facto rationalisations. Rather like Nassim Taleb's book, golden opportunities and Black Swans are no use to us if we can only recognise them after the fact. Shortening the summer break for want of better parenting ... isn't the answer to encourage better parenting? After all, if they're in school all year round, when will they find the time to schlep down to Hamburg to play in strip clubs?

Anyhow, thanks for writing.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Jan 2009 14:48:14 GMT
John B says:
Hi Mr Buxton,

I came across your review as Gladwell's book was 'recommended' by the Amazon cross-sell system while I was buying another item. A very thoughtful and literate piece and its good of you to spend the time to cogently argue against this year's 'Management/Life Improvement Blockbuster'. I've seen so many of these over the years (and even seen some of my former corporate employers directly and unthinkingly use them as company strategy!) that I have become a little cynical of 'changing my life'. However, you have raised my interest in Stephen Gould's book and, assuming that you are not working for his publishers as part of a viral marketing project (that's how cynical I can be), I'll go and have a look at that.

Keep up the good work


John Bound

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Jan 2009 19:10:16 GMT
Olly Buxton says:
Actually I noticed at least one of the reviewers on the US site was working for the publisher!

I promise I am not part of a cynical viral campaign!

Have a look at the reviews on this site of Gould's book (including my one) because that book - and Stephen Jay Gould in general - certainly polarises opinion (he and Richard Dawkins were arch nemeses in the evolutionary biology field, which will horrify some, but it commended him to me). The Mismeasure of Man does somewhat belabour batty old science, so seems a little like shooting fish in a barrell, but is well enough written and analytical enough to be worth reading anyway. Alternatively try a selected essays volume (the Richness of Life for example) which has excerpts from this book.


Posted on 18 Feb 2009 17:05:21 GMT
Bandidoz says:
Is it not the case that the author makes the point that "To increase your chances of having major success you're probably going to have to invest 10000 hours of worthwhile effort into it"? That doesn't necessarily follow on to "Investing 10000 hours of effort into an activity yields success", nor "In order to be successful you *have* to invest 10000 hours of effort".

In other words, success doesn't come easy, there has to be a combination of raw talent, hard work and some luck thrown in for good measure. Relying on any of those dimensions alone would not be sufficient.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Feb 2009 20:59:24 GMT
Olly Buxton says:
My point is that as an evidential matter the "10,000 hours" *necessarily* is defined by the success; the success isn't (and ahead of time can't be) defined by the 10,000 hours.

Posted on 30 Mar 2009 18:04:34 BDT
I tend to agree with Olly about MG's Beatles example, which I would not consider an outlier. I feel MG's other examples are accurate. The richest people in history lived during the industrialisation of the US, because they had the opportunity to become rich. They were also undoubtedly very hard working. The example of Bill Gates is also compelling. He had an excellent opportunity being able to practice on a computer at avery early age, and was extremely hard working, spending hours and hours on the computer honing his skills.

If you doubt the ability of 10,000 hours of practice to change your mental biology - take a look at a UCL study into the fact that London Cabbies have a larger Hippocampus (the part of the brain that determines sense of direction) than ordinary people. When reading this, consider how unlikey it is that people who have a good sense of direction feel drawn towards the "Cabby Profession" - therefore ruling out any statistical bias.

It seems clear to me that the brain is a muscle, and that continual pratice, over an extended period of time, will alter it. So 10,000 hours will make a difference (5 years of 9-5). In my opinion, this is correlation AND causality.

Sometimes a statistical relationship can be interpreted as causality.

Posted on 17 Apr 2009 16:10:39 BDT
I read Gladwell's book in a couple of days and found it utterly compelling, even though there are flaws in his argument. He doesn't say anything particularly original (didn't Thomas Edison claim that genius was 1% inspration and 99% perspiration, in reference to the position that success is more due to graft than talent?), and Stanley Milgram's much repeated and cited experiment on autocratic behaviour illustrated the dangers of being unaware of authority structures. His book is a little unbalanced, to my mind, in the way that he discusses the reasons for the achievements of high achievers and then plunges into (no pun intended, sorry) cultural explanations of behaviour; it might have been better starting out with this material and then focusing more on the individuals her mentions at the beginning.

But that's a minor point in a book that makes accessible a difficult concept: how do we explain, without the too-easy label of "genius," the circumstances that produce "outliers?" He was raising a point for discussion and intended to provoke debate, he was not trying to publish an academic treatise on the nature of exceptional achievement. He does make clear that he acknowledges talent, and he never says that it's just about hard graft. Your review made me think, and I agree with a lot of what you say, but I think you oversimplify his basic message, that success in life (not ability) is a combination of situational factors and that talent, while important, is only important up to a point. I know a lot of talented people who are nowhere because they have no drive, or are simply happy being moderately successful. Equally I have friends who are only reasonably talented but have built success out of their talent and sheer drive. It's a story repeated the world over, but i think it bears repeating by gifted (or should I say circumstantially enriched???) writers like Gladwell so that we stop venerating the great and the good and pour opportunities to where they are needed most.

One final thing - you take exception to looking back from the present success of an outlier and finding reasons in his or her personal history that might explain it. Surely, without actually travelling back in time or doing a "Truman Show" kind of observational experiment, there's no other way to do it?

Mike Simpson

In reply to an earlier post on 13 May 2009 06:22:25 BDT
Last edited by the author on 13 May 2009 07:01:03 BDT
Viewer says:
1. The problem with Gladwell's explanations is that he overlooks hereditary factors. Probably because that wouldn't sell as well.

2. In terms of Asian Math success he notes:

"Rice farming lays out a cultural pattern that works beautifully when it comes to math...Rice farming is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture known to man. It is also the most cognitively demanding form of agriculture"

This is fine, but Gladwell looks purely at cultural effects. What has been indicated in books like 'A Farewell to Alms' is that the most effective farmers tended to have the most children & hence there was genetic change in the population (selection for certain "middle class" traits). See UC Davis economist Greg Clark's paper here:

"The study of wills reported in A Farewell to Alms implied that economic
competition could change the genetic composition of the English population over time. This study of rare surnames shows that indeed economic success in 1600 by a man could permanently increase the relative frequency of his surname, and by implication of his genes. This does not demonstrate that these genetic changes had significant impacts in changing the behavior of the average person in England by 1800. But Clark (2008) shows that economic success in modern societies has at its roots a significant genetic component."

Could a similar selection process have applied in Asia? Recent research shows that with the advent of agriculture and population growth genetic developments have sped up over the past 10,000-15,000 years (see 'The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution'). Particularly, some of the changes are associated with brain & axon growth:

"The sweeping alleles we see are mostly regional - you see them in one group and not the other two. A fair fraction are neurological and likely to affect behavior in some way. For example, you see new versions of SLC6A4, a serotonin transporter, in Europeans and Asians. There's a new version of a gene (DBA1) that shapes the development of the layers of the cerebral cortex in east Asia."

Further, one of the genes associated with ADHD (DRD4) is rare to nonexistent in East Asia. A recent hypothesis suggests that the absence of 7R in East Asia is recent, consequent to the establishment of powerful polities that allowed population growth and forced agricultural intensification. (PNAS January 8, 2002 vol. 99 no. 1 10-12)

3. In any case, Gladwell's theory about rice growing is inconsistent. Do the inhabitants of rice-growing southern China outperform the inhabitants of northern China in math? Northern China for millennia has been a wheat/millet/small grain-producing region rather than a rice region. Do Beijingers get beaten by Shainghainese on international math tests? Gladwell avoids this issue in a footnote and claims that "we don't know" if northern Chinese are good at math.

4. Gladwell also skips over studies showing East Asians perform about as well as their biological peers even when adopted into white households. Does culture explain this?

"Contrary to "culture" theory, the ethnic academic gaps are almost identical for transracially adopted children, and to the extent they are different they go in the opposite direction predicted by culture theory. The gap between whites and Asians fluctuated from 19 to .09 in the NAEP data while the gap in the adoption data is from 1/3 to 3 times larger. This is consistent with the Sue and Okazaki paper above which showed that contrary to popular anecdotes, the values that lead to higher academic grades are actually found more often in white homes. In other words Asian-Americans perform highly despite their Asian home cultural environment not because of it."

5. The explanation for Jewish success in the legal & other professions is similarly fanciful. He overlooks the most well documented explanation:

Psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115. That's only modestly higher than the overall European average of 100, but the gap is large enough to produce a huge difference in the proportion of of those with high levels of cognitive ability. When a group's average IQ is 100, the percentage of people above 140 is 0.4%; when the average is 110, the genius rate is 2.3%.

Cochran & Harpending at University of Utah noted that European Jews were forbidden to work in many of the common jobs of the Middle Ages from 800 to 1700 CE, such as agriculture, and subsequently worked in high proportion in professions such as finance and trade, some of which were forbidden to non-Jews by the church. Those who performed better are known to have raised more children to adulthood passing on their genes in greater proportion than those who performed less successfully.

G. Cochran, J. Hardy, H. Harpending, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659-693 (2006).

Posted on 25 Sep 2009 14:48:48 BDT
T. D. Welsh says:
Your remarks about The Beatles are beside the point because (whatever Gladwell may say) they were not top-class musicians. They never had to be - just proficient playing their instruments in fairly stereotyped ways, while they did have a talent for composing songs with mass appeal. No doubt some rock musicians did accumulate much closer to 10,000 hours of practice - guys like Jerry Garcia and Eric Clapton - but The Beatles chose to master a relatively simple, restricted idiom. They were admired, not for the quality of their playing, but for the originality and charm of their songs.
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