Monday, August 19, 2013

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

This is the second book of Malcolm Gladwell I am reading. The first one being Tipping Point in which he had explored how some ideas grow rapidly and become popular. In this Book "Outliers: The Story of Success" Gladwell explores the factors that contribute to success. 

We are all brought up on the romanticized fact that hard-work and determination leads to success. Malcolm counters this by arguing that the factors that lead to success are not so simple but are a combination of opportunity & legacy.

Gladwell looks into the lifes of those who have risen meteorically to the top of their fields, analyzing developmental patterns and searching for a common thread. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to dissuade us of the notion that genius and greatness are predominantly a function of innate ability and IQ. He rightly notes that while IQ is certainly a contributor, it reaches a "point of diminishing returns" after a while: once people score about 130, IQ becomes less important and "intangibles" become more important.

The book, then, focuses on what these "intangibles" are. Gladwell suggests that things like what income level, culture, and time of a child's birth are important contributors to success, as well as a person's tenacity and agility.

He argues that there is no such thing as a self-made man and that the origins of high achievement lie instead in the circumstances and influences of one's upbringing, combined with excellent timing. The Beatles had Hamburg in 1960-62; Bill Gates had access to an ASR-33 Teletype in 1968. Both put in thousands of hours-Gladwell posits that 10,000 is the magic number-on their craft at a young age, resulting in an above-average head start. 

Reemphasizing his theme, Gladwell continuous to remind the reader that genius is not the only or even the most important thing when determining a person's success.  He takes the example of Christopher Langan, a man who ended up owning a horse farm in rural Missouri despite having an IQ of 195 (Einstein's was 150). Gladwell points out that Langan has not reached a high level of success because of the environment in which he grew up.  Further, Gladwell compares Langan with Oppenheimer, the father of the US atomic bomb. Noting that even if both had the innate natural abilities that should have helped them both succeed in life, Gladwell argues that Oppenheimer's upbringing made a pivotal difference in his life. Oppenheimer grew up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, was the son of a successful businessman and was afforded a childhood of "concerted cultivation". Malcom argues that these opportunities gave Oppenheimer the chance to develop the practical intelligence necessary for success.

Gladwell advances the notion that the success of students of different cultures or different socio-economic backgrounds is in fact highly correlated to the time students spent in school or in educationally rich environments. How does culture matter? He talks about the discrepancy between how many days per year American children spend in school (180) versus Asian students (280), and how many more social expectaitons Asian students are borne into. This will affect academic and other achievement. Gladwell further explores how culture shape up a person taking the examples of a "Plane Crash" and also from the life of his Mother.

Gladwell is criticized for too often falling prey to fallacious reasoning, inadequate and anecdotally based sampling, and oversimplified analysis. But the way Gladwell has written the book you unconsciously nod with him when you see his arguments. I enjoyed this book and will give it a rating of 4 / 5

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