Thursday, September 2, 2010

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (non-fiction, 7.0 out of 10)

Outliers: The Story of Success
For a guilty non-fiction fix, I'm an admitted fan of books in the currently fashionable genre of popular economics and social phenomena. Stuff like Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner, The Undercover Economist by Harford, MoneyBall and The Blind Side by Lewis, and, of course, Malcolm Gladwell’s informative triumvirate, The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers.

Having previously enjoyed The Tipping Point and Blink, I knew what to expect from Gladwell's most recent foray, Outliers. His gimmick is pointed research into well-known or everyday subject matters to find hidden patterns and meaning that carry over to his larger thesis. In Outliers, he examines why some people, which he calls outliers, become highly successful in their field – people like Bill Gates, the Beatles, professional hockey players, Robert Oppenheimer and (gasp) the author himself. Gladwell contends that success is as much a product of the opportunities that present themselves to an individual as it is of the individual’s talents and efforts.

You may be thinking that doesn’t sound like a groundbreaking theory. Worse, if you read his critics, you’ll see that many contend that Gladwell’s methodologies are derivative and unscientific. Outliers also suffers from a bit of unevenness – as with The Tipping Point and Blink, Gladwell leads with his best stuff and by the end of the book he seems to be rehashing the same themes with inferior data and less interesting case studies (basically writing about himself for the book's final act). I would suggest ignoring all that and reading it anyway if you’re inclined to popular non-fiction at all.

The joy of Outliers is in the depth with which Gladwell explores his case studies, shedding light on the stories behind the stories we know. Did you know that the Beatles became the Beatles by taking advantage of the opportunity to play countless hours of music in front of live audiences in Hamburg’s red light district? Or that a disproportionate number of professional hockey players are born in January, February and March? Equally important as these factual discoveries are the analytical building blocks employed by Gladwell – ideas (not necessarily his own) like The Matthew Effect and the 10,000 Hour Rule, which resonate beyond the covers of Outliers. Outliers entertains, educates and, most importantly, makes one think about their own successes, under-utilized talents and what might have been.


  1. I've been meaning to read a Gladwell book, which of his would you recommend starting with?

  2. @Tony D: You can't go wrong with either the Tipping Point or Outliers. I want to say I enjoyed Outliers more but that may just be a product of recency -- it's been years since I read the Tipping Point. Tipping Point focuses on how social change comes about -- the accumulation of small changes, better ideas, and more widespread use of those ideas. Like Outliers, it features interesting pop culture case studies (I recall one about children's television programming being particularly good), though overall the Outliers case studies were more interesting to me (in particular Bill Gates, the Beatles, hockey players, and Oppenheimer). At gunpoint, I'd say Outliers. They're both quick reads though and if you enjoy one you may easily find time for the other.

  3. I like Gladwell too (I've also read all three of his books) - he explains why things you are already pretty sure are true are true. But it's always interesting. It's great fodder for cocktail party conversation. Did you know that 65 percent (or whatever the exact number is) of NFL players are born during Jan., Feb. and March? Do you know why? People are always fascinated by that.

    I didn't like Outliers as much as the other two, too - mostly because of the 10,000-Hour Rule. I'm not sure why, but I can't get my head around that and get it to make sense. Why not 5,000? Or 15,000? It just seemed too arbitrary to buy...

  4. @Greg Z. Interesting. I agree that Gladwell's stuff makes great conversation fodder (ditto the other books I mentioned in the post). Interesting take on the 10,000 hour rule. I suspect 5,000 wouldn't be enough for most people to master the skill/profession/sport in question, but agree that 10,000 is too precise. The takeaway is that to master a skill/sport/profession, even a gifted person needs an enormous amount of practice. And just think -- all this blogging is (in its own way) writing practice. Check off another hour.