Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

OutliersOutliers by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was living in South America in 2008 so I missed a lot of the zeitgeist books of the time, including Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. When my local book club put it on their list, I decided to see what the hype was about.

As a reader I consume far more fiction than non-fiction and the main pattern I’ve observed in the non-fiction I’ve read goes something like this: present story that supports the book’s thesis, present thesis, mix up evidence and supporting cases with diminishing returns, finish weakly. And for non-fiction this pattern works well, I think a book can have a profound impact even if it fizzles out in the end, which is almost impossible to accomplish in fiction.

Outliers is not too dissimilar, it starts out with the strange case of Roseta, Pennsylvania, where the longevity of its inhabitants is owed to nothing other than a sense of community. Gladwell sites Dan Levitan’s 10,000 hour theory (the theory that there is no such thing as ‘raw talent’ but a mastery of anything can be accomplished by 10,000 hours of practice) and applies it to Bill Gates, the Beatles and others.

The book seems to tread uncomfortable waters when addressing why South Korean pilots were the worst in the world and why Asians are good at math. Gladwell manages to avoid controversy and examines the cultural legacy behind these issues to come up with a plausible explanation for the phenomena he observes. The ending of the book is interesting too because Gladwell delves into his family’s history in Jamaica (which explains his awesome hair) and how certain privileges and circumstances led him to where he ended up in life.

In this regard I think the book is very effective, it challenges the reader to examine their own background, opportunities and cultural legacies. I looked back at two events in my life in the context of what was discussed in Outliers. When I was in the second grade I spent 1 week with the ‘gifted’ readers before being demoted. I remember thinking that I wasn’t good enough to be with those other kids, that I wasn’t smart enough. But being a November baby (Gladwell states that our educational system, like the hockey system that results in 40% of NHLers being born in January, February or March, has an age bias built into it that instills early patterns of success and failure) and a recent immigrant to the country with parents with poor English skills, it was no wonder I couldn’t keep up. I also remember in the 9th grade when my guidance councilor recommended I drop down to General level math from Advanced because it was probably ‘too hard for me.’ I was lucky that I had a university educated father who pretty much said, ‘you’re lazy, smarten up,’ because that decision could very well have ruined my life – I certainly wouldn’t have tutored algebra and calculus through high school, university and my early married life to make ends meet and I certainly wouldn’t have received a university education in the sciences.

I talked about the book with my father and I asked him how his father, who was a poor taxi driver in Lima, Peru, had three sons who went to university and I got to hear different stories that I hadn’t heard before about his advantages, opportunities and lucky breaks. I can’t think of another book that revealed new information about my family to me.

But I think the book affected me most as a parent, it gives the hope that greatness is available to anyone and that your children can be better than you with the right guidance and opportunities (oh, if you spend an hour a day doing something, it’ll take about 27 years to get your 10,000 hours in, so maybe greatness isn’t available to everyone, per se). If my kids aren’t math geniuses, scientifically literate and book devouring nerds, then I think I’ll have failed them in some regard.

Although Outliers contains two chapters on Genius (titled ‘The Trouble with Genius’ parts I & II), I thought this wasn’t fully addressed. It didn’t examine creativity or imagination, probably because it couldn’t. I think what fosters these uniquely human traits is still not fully understood. Gladwell gives the story of his background, but what is it that makes him recognize and seek meaning in odd patterns? What is it that creates great vision or even the desire to create in someone? Perhaps that can be the subject of his next book. Or perhaps his next book is one of these: http://www.malcolmgladwellbookgenerator….

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Pitouie by Derek Winkler

PitouiePitouie by Derek Winkler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book on a whim at a Broken Pencil event and found myself quickly caught up in the story. The plot alternates between the present on the titular island where large industrial corporations bid to use a lake in a dormant volcano as a toxic waste dump and a second which takes place 35 years earlier at a radar base and Inuit village in northern Canada where a mining scam is being perpetrated. Having worked in both the environmental and mining exploration fields, I kept watch for technical errors or unrealistic portrayals of the industry. I couldn’t really find any (I wonder if Winkler might write for the Northern Miner), I thought the book was researched well enough to be convincing and didn’t bog down the plot with boring details. I read a couple of reviews that said the Island story was the more interesting plot line but I disagree. I found the set up of the mining scam to be very interesting and I felt pangs of anxiety when Lars couldn’t get his snow mobile started (I’ve been there, it’s absolutely horrifying to know you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s -40 and too far to walk back to camp and that you will die if your snowmobile doesn’t start up). All the way along I was wondering how the two stories connected and without giving anything away, it was done very cleverly.

Although the book is fun (and funny), it gave me much to ponder as I read through it. Some of it was absurd, such as what would happen to the industrial waste if the volcano became active again, would it disassociate under the heat or vapourize, etc., etc., and some was more hefty when thinking on the actions of the characters and the various layers of corruption. I found the book hard to put down for the last 50 pages or so and all in all, I thought Pitouie was a very pleasant surprise.

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