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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