Friday, November 6, 2009


Last night I read the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. My dad first mentioned this book to me in July, and I finally picked it up about a week ago. This book was utterly fascinating!

If you haven't heard of it, this book analyzes specific factors that contributed to the success of individuals. It looks beneath the "rags to riches" stories to reveal the unique advantages that well known figures had in rising to the top. It is very interesting to see that birthdate is one HUGE factor in a person's success.

For example, to be a pioneer (and get very, very rich in the process) in the personal computer industry, you basically had to be born around 1955. This put you at the perfect age when computers were entering universities, when the market was just developing etc. Gladwell backs up these assertions with very clear examples, and identifies what likely would have happened if, say, Steve Jobs or Bill Joy had been born five years earlier.

It's not just computers either. Gladwell analyzes the garmet industries of Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th century, the big takeover law firms of New York city, the tycoons of industry at the end of the 19th century etc. In some cases he compares people to their not-successful parents and shows how the circumstances and timing had far more to do with their lack of success than their character makeup, which they passed to their very successful children.

Gladwell spends quite a bit of time analyzing the fact that IQ does not equal success, but tells the stories of Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer (yes, THAT Oppenheimer). Chris Langan has a higher IQ than Oppenheimer, but nowhere near the success. Gladwell identifies the factors that contributed to the outcomes of lfie for each of these men, and again the results are fascinating.

There is also good analysis of plane crashes, and how cultural factors contribute to plane crashes far more than equipment failure. Then the book addresses how airlines have been able to reduce their crashes by understanding those cultural issues and training their pilots to change their behavior in the interest of safety.

Gladwell also digs into the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and cites research that demonstrates how practice is far more important than raw talent in becoming an expert. Again, fascinating stuff.

He addresses the difference in educational development of low income families verses high income families over the summer. The income gap made little to no difference during the school year, but over the summer there was a huge difference. The more well off families took their kids to the library, sent to them to camp, engaged them in things that allowed them to continue to grow and develop. The lower income kids may have had a lot of fun over the summer, but came back to school behind the kids who had continued to develop.

In the section entitled "Legacy" Gladwell looks at how our cultural and genetic makeup affects our behaviors, generations into the future. He cites research into how people respond to being offended and how those responses tie together with their ancestors professions (wild stuff!). He closes with a very personal section about his parents and how their success (and by consequence his) is also tied to events that happened long, long ago and how they benefitted from the fallout from these things. Once again, timing was crucially important.

I absolutely loved this book. Practical application for me really boiled down to this: Seize the opportunities in front of you, because success is as much about opportunities and circumstances as raw talent, work ethic and intellectual prowess.


1 comment:

Armor and Sword said...

I read this book about a year ago. I loved this book for the athletic analysis, as well as all the points you made. As you mentioned time of birth has a huge aspect to those athletes that become successful.

It forced me to look at how I recruited players when I was coaching college soccer and how I might in the future.

A great read that everyone should read.