Friday, September 10, 2010

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Have you ever wondered why certain people are successful and others aren't? Is there a formula to success? Or are people simply in the right place at the right time?

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell,is a book that looks at successful people and analyzes what has set them apart from the rest of us. Gladwell begins with a hockey example. Consider NHL hockey players. Does a person make the NHL because he is supernaturally talented at hockey or are there other factors at work? Gladwell demonstrates that a look at NHL birthdays may hold a clue to a budding hockey player's success, as many NHL players are born in the first three months of the year. A careful analysis of how young hockey players are groomed and how the hockey calendar operates gives credence to Gladwell's theory that it matters (in terms of being a hockey player) when a child is born. NHL players' birthdays, along with talent, he surmises, are a contributing factor in their entry into the NHL.

Similarly, Gladwell asks the question, why do Asians seem to excel in math? His answer delves into several factors including language differences between Asian languages and English and how this may affect a child's learning of math. He postulates that if a child can learn math more easily than another, he may enjoy it more in school, which may lead to him studying more and performing better. This is a sort of snowball effect which began with the language the child spoke.

Gladwell also explains why 10,000 is a special number in terms of becoming an expert at anything, and applies his theory to people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the Beatles. Were they successful because they were natural prodigies in their respective fields? Or were they in the right places at the right times, with an unusual opportunity to put in their 10,000 hours relatively early in their careers?

In addition to these examples, Gladwell also talks about airline crashes - does a pilot's culture play a role in an airline's unusual amount of crashes? Family feuds in Appalachia - Why were settlers in this region of America inclined to feuds? Jewish Immigration - Why did the grandchildren of so many Jewish immigrants to the US become doctors and lawyers while their predecessors were garment makers?

Like Freakonimics, this book has changed the way I look at certain things. And it has opened my eyes to things I didn't even realize existed, like the perfect time in history to create an entrepreneur or software giant. In a way, it offers hope that even though there are people clearly smarter or more talented than others, most people, if given the right opportunities and a bit of luck, can become outliers themselves.

I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading Gladwell's other books: Blink, The Tipping Point, and What the Dog Saw.

Reviewed by Cathy

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