Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers

Dec 30, 2015

I’m very suspicious of books which have superlative blurbs on the cover, because, often, I find them to be over-hyped. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell are no exception. I’m somewhat familiar with Gladwell because he and his books come up here and there, quite often on RadioLab which actually presents the major points of this book in several episodes.

In Outliers Gladwell claims many things but the key concept is that success is not about extraordinary individuals, it’s rather about chance, opportunity, timing and persistence. I admit, that the lure of a hero who succeeds in xyr career is appealing on a story-telling level, I’m well aware of it being false. Gladwell illustrates this point by focusing on different conditions which enable success: timing of birth of hockey players, 10K hour rule of Beatles in Hamburg, institutions set up to give more attention to better students thus creating a positive feedback loop for them and a negative feedback loop for those left behind, and culture. Personally, I find any discussion of a successful person which omits those to be superficial and uninteresting, but there might be people who could find this as revelatory as the cover suggests. Nonetheless, there still were some interesting stories and tidbits which I enjoyed.

The second part of the book is significantly worse. Gladwell discusses patterns of success in different fields such as airplane crashes, success of Asian immigrants and their propensity for math or academic results of children from poor neighbourhoods. His ideas are entertainingly presented and seductive, but his conclusions are wobbly at best. Some of it is given by the nature of the problems which are very complex and dynamic, but even his starting line is doubtful (for example in the school example, he uses standardized tests as a yard stick).

If you want a book which will not let your brain completely clock out but also not be challenging, Outliers are an acceptable choice. The prose is well written and entertaining, the whole book can be read in few hours, and if you have more time, you can think about the mistakes, information selection process and biases which undermine Gladwells arguments.