As part of the “Managing Human Behavior” course we had in this term, we were given a list of books from which we were supposed to pick up one book. At the end of the term(which is now!) we were supposed to submit the review of the book we chose. The review is longish as this was to be graded by a professor I have huge respect for. He is one the best faculties in Human Behavior in India, has flawless communication skills and more than anything else- is a great human being. If that arouses your interest here is his profile:Prof J Singh
Here is the review:
|Outliers: The Story of Success|
“Outliers: The Story of Success” is the third book written by Malcom Gladwell after “The Tipping Point” and “Blink”. Malcom Gladwell has pioneered the genre of “resolving world mysteries” by digging deep for secret patterns behind them. Other notable authors in this genre are “Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner” who wrote the books “Freakonomics” and “Super Freakonomics”.
Malcolm Gladwell (born September 3, 1963) is a writer for The New Yorker and best-selling author based in New York City. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996.
As defined in the book, an Outlier is:
1: Something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.
2: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.
One of the most intriguing secrets has been the secret of success. Some people have achieved great success in their lives and have risen beyond the rest of the living mortals. They can be called outliers as they have achieved something which is markedly different from others. What exactly makes them such outliers?
This is what Malcom Gladwell attempts to do in this book. He goes beyond the conventional wisdom which exalts individual merit, vision and determination as the differentiating factors for success and proposes that the reasons for success are far too deep seated and go much beyond the individuals themselves.
Which one is sure to succeed- a profoundly gifted child or a child born with the silver spoon? Most of us would say a gifted child as we think that individual merit ultimately brings success, sooner or later. Some of us on the other hand would play it safe and pick the child with the silver spoon.
Malcom Gladwell differs and says neither. Instead, he says, success is not so much determined by individual merit than the external factors which are much beyond one’s control. In the 9 chapters in the book, he examines everyone from business giants to scientific geniuses, sport stars to musicians, freak individuals to congregation of cultures, goes to the roots of each of them and tries to explain the deep seating reasons behind them.
One emphatic example used in the book to support this point of view is that of Bill Gates. Popular wisdom idolizes the Microsoft founder and credits the amalgamation of technical and business skills for his success. It says that Gates was a geek who could see the future of technology and had the guts to start on his own. Gladwell admits this but says it is only a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of success. He goes back to early years of Gates and identifies a series of incredibly lucky events which happened in his life. So for example, Gates happened to study at Lakeside which had a time-sharing computer system as early as 1968. This gave him a distinct advantage over others. The money required to keep these computers was pretty much a fortune but it was luckily funded by a mothers club in his society. He could have been deprived of this computer system too when the fund got consumed. But luckily again, his friend’s father, a founder at a company hired Gates to test out the company’s software. This not only gave him the much needed experience of working on computers but also put him in touch with a company named ISI, which offered him a part time programmer’s job as people with programming skills were scarce back then. The author sums it up by quoting Gates who said in an interview with the author- “I was incredibly lucky”.
Things get more interesting when Gladwell begins explaining the immense success of outliers such as Gates, Bill Joy, The Beatles, hockey stars, etc. Gladwell proposes what he calls “the 1000 hour rule”. He analyses the formative years of these men and finds that their best works didn’t happen until they completed 1000 hours of practice. So for instance, he asks Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems to count the number of hours he practiced before he wrote UNIX operating system. And Bill Joy does confirm the number of hours- 1000.
In his quest for reasons behind success, Gladwell shifts focus from individuals to a much bigger and more complex world- that of national cultures and traditions. He delves into the question- “Do the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears play a crucial role in our success?” In the process he picks up the oddities such as “Chinese outperforming westerns in math skills” and “higher incidences of plane crashes in Korean airlines than others airlines”
While analyzing the superior math skills of the Chinese, Gladwell credits the simplicity and ease to use of their number system. He goes further and connects their math superiority with their national culture of hard work. He cites the rice centric agriculture for this hard work.
To establish the impact of cultural legacy further, he argues well on the case of dubious distinction of Korean airlines for undergoing maximum air plane crashes. He proposes that success of a flight is not only a function of the flying skills of the pilots, technically sound condition the plane or the efficiency of ground staff of the airport. As in the case of Korean airlines, the trouble arose from much beyond- the national culture of Korea which respects authority and power unquestionably.
As disclosed by the conversations taped in the black box of crashed planes, in case of crashes of Korean airlines. The co-pilot failed to suggest actions which went against the judgment of the first officer and chose to stay silent.
While reading the book, one thought which keeps recurring – is Gladwell oversimplifying things? Success, at the end of the day, is a complex phenomenon. As Gladwell says, the conventional wisdom of holding the individual merit high can’t explain it. But by the same argument, Gladwell’s theory of “serendipitous opportunities lead to success” is not convincing either. One can argue that an individual who has the ability and desire to achieve success creates these opportunities for himself. This then becomes a classic chicken and egg question. For instance, Gladwell seems to suggest that Bill Gates won’t have been successful if he was not born at the right time in a wonderful neighborhood and had not been allowed to use computers for free at the age of 12. But this may not be right- a person with talents and vision of Bill Gates would have creates opportunities for himself and would have been as successful even if he had been born to a poor family in Alaska.
Analytical readers would also be not so convinced by the data and surveys employed by Gladwell to establish the foundation stone for his analysis. Since the foundation stone in on shaky ground, the applicability of conclusion is doubtful. For instance, while linking math skills to hard work, Gladwell just mentions two studies, each prone to individual opinions. One comes from Alan Schoenfeld, a math professor who experimented with a few(most probably non Asian) students. The other comes from TIMSS, an international group of educators, which simply links unattended questions to the ability to do hard work on part of students.
To sum up, the book is definitely worth a read. The book is replete with many interesting observations and Gladwell does well in stitching the distinct pieces together to form some compelling arguments. Whether to accept his arguments is an individual choice but one should be aware of the pitfalls of generalizing and oversimplification. One should read the book nevertheless, not to understand the secret recipe of success, but to stir up your thinking with some fresh perspectives.