Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book Review: Outliers - The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Many of you may know Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell from his bestsellers such as Blink and The Tipping Point. I first caught wind of Outliers, his latest book, through a CBC interview with Gladwell. His approach to understanding what makes successful people successful piqued my interest.

Gladwell's goal is to provide a new view on achievement. In doing so, he argues, society would be better able to create the environment to better cultivate more successful individuals. Everything from improving our school system to improving aviation safety could then be achieved through creating the conditions that create successful individuals and societies. To do so, Gladwell examines various cases and breaks down the major factors which contribute to success. From professional hockey players to the Beatles to Bill Gates, highly relatable examples are used to support his theories.

So is it nature or nurture? Are some of us predisposed to rising to the top at whatever we do just as some of us are doomed to fail? According to Gladwell, it is a combination of both. Using cases, psychological studies, and statistics, he puts forth various theories which explain how and why success happens. Success is not an outcome of some extraordinary consequences that happen at random, but is directly the result of factors such as: hard work and practice, innate ability (to a certain extent but a high IQ does not guarantee success), luck and opportunity (which could mean coming from a wealthy family with the means to provide such opportunities, or being born in the right place at the right time), and rather controversially, cultural legacy.

Outliers is a well thought-out, well researched book, but I did find the examples he used very conveniently support his arguments. Hindsight is 20/20, and it would be worthwhile to review some of the studies he cites in further detail. Most of his theories are wellvsupported and they make sense, although his thoughts on how our culture impact why we are successful at some things and fail at others are sure to cause heated debate. For example, he postulates Asian students are successful at mathematics due to the thousands of years of dependence and hard work ethic in rice paddy fields. He argues that it is not that Asian students (those from Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and also those who are Asian in ethnicity but born or raised abroad) are genetically superior to solve mathematics problems but rather, those students have a greater work ethic to sit patiently to solve math problems. Through thousands of years of tending rice paddy fields, which is a notoriously labour intensive and complex process, students from Asian cultures have inherited a kind of work ethic not seen in their North American and European counterparts which help them excel at math.

Now I have always been terrible at math, and I am not sure whether he is correct and I should have just sat my ass down for longer periods of time and I could have achieved A's in Calc 101 and 102. Gladwell uses broad stereotypes in building his case, but I commend him for saying what many have already thought about. In the end, Gladwell argues that for good or for worse, our culture impacts why we're good at some things and not so good at others. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we can make changes which allow us to shed or to embrace those legacies that make us good at what we do. At the end of the book, Gladwell reveals a surprise about his own cultural roots which ties his other theories together.

One thing that Gladwell never really focused on is what is defined as success. His cases centre around success in the career and individuals who have climbed to the top of their respective career ladders. To me, career success is only one way to define success. Success to me, is happiness in life, and whatever that may be. I understand that is not the focus of Gladwell's book, but not everyone wants or thrives on the kind of success that Gladwell is writing about.

Outliers is a worthwhile read, and provides a new way to look at those who rise to the top in their careers. Perhaps what I take away from this is a greater acknowledgment of how my Chinese culture contributes to who I am as a person. The Chinese believe that hard work and good fortune will always lead to success, and in many ways, this is in parallel with what Gladwell is saying.

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