Bookshelf: Outliers

What makes people successful? Is there anything to the nature vs. nurture? What other factors impact success?

These are the kind of questions Malcolm Gladwell asks in his book ‘Outliers‘, drawing on anecdotes of people, both well known and no so well known about what had to happen for those people to become famous.

He runs through cases such as Bill Gates, and the factor of being born at the right time and with parents able to afford to buy his school a very expensive computer. Certainly, he had skill and acumen, but he was also in the right time at the right time – other equally ‘smart’ people perhaps were not. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, and follow quite long explanations of historical social rules. Some others, such as the opening chapter, illustrate how arbitrary rules like deciding the cut off dates for being in an ice hockey team can enforce an artificial limitation on some due simply to being born at the ‘wrong’ time of year, rules which are likely actually reducing the overall number of high quality professional players.

Though again he extrapolates from individual cases to show a theory or trend, some are educational; whilst I was aware many Jewish people in Europe became shop owners due to land ownership laws, I didn’t realise that in the early twentieth century, many Jewish immigrants became lawyers when the job paid little and many were pushed into merger and acquisition work as the dirty end of the profession – a part which would stand them in good stead in later years as the area took off.

Of course, this is anecdotal, and some of his ideas begin to stretch theories, such as ‘Asians’ being good at maths due to the kanji system and rice growing. For me personally, his assertion that Japanese are good at math due to long school hours, may or may not be true. Having worked in Japanese schools, I doubt it – it’s likely more that the schools here teach to a test, and little else, and it’s rote learning. That said, the idea that a small generation sandwiched between two larger ones has he benefit of more lower class sizes and so on, is intriguing.

Gladwell also has a decent theory that it takes 10,000 hours to get great at something, and many also fall by the way side by the sheer amount of work it can require in going from good to great. It also seems to equate to about years. In all he sees most of the successful as a crossroad of nurture, nature, timing and endurance.

Quirks aside, it’s a readable and personable book, and the telling of individuals’ stories makes it flow nicely, and will at least leave you asking some questions about the infamous ‘conventional wisdom’.

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Outliers: The Story of Success

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Outliers: The Story of Success