Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Outliers: The Story of Success


(by Malcolm Gladwell)

Outliers examines what it is that determines a person’s success, particularly for those people who excel in their discipline and finds that a combination of talent, skill, determination, hard-work, luck, timing, and politics is more important than any ‘innate’ proclivity.

“Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage.’ The [person] starts out a little bit better than his peers. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge in turn leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still – and on and on until the [person] is a genuine outlier.”

The ‘little bit better’ referred to here has to do with when a person was born. As many activities such as school and sports recruit only once per year, that means there could be a year’s age difference between people admitted at the same time, and the older child will have physical and cognitive benefits over his younger peers.

The book also talks about the 10,000 hour rule which is what is estimated as the time needed to become an expert at a skill. It includes other narratives, some interesting and some long-winded, about success (and failure) stories.

“We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But there’s nothing in any of the histories we’ve looked at so far to suggest things are that simple. These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.”

One of my favourite stories compared the genius Chris Langan who was denied a scholarship because of incomplete paperwork to Openheimer who tried to kill his tutor and was only put on probation and required to see a psychiatrist.

While not a literary masterpiece, Outliers is certainly interesting and quick read.