Book review: Outliers by Malcom Gladwell

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:

Book Information:

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[1] based in New York City. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996.

Brief Introduction:

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.

Book Review:

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.

Book Review: Sons of Fortune(Archer again)

So last month I read this novel by Jeffrey Archer(yes yet again. I can’t resist him) which I picked up at a railway station. Before I begin the review, to make things more challenging for myself, let me resolve to NOT use any cliches which are usually used by book reviewers. Let me know how far I was successful.

Sons of Fortune


Before we start, I would like to mention that most of this review would be a "spoiler" for people who actually want to read this book. But to help people who want to have some idea about the plot, before they go buy(original please. Say no to PIRACY!) the book, I am dividing the paras in this review into two parts- "Mild Spoiler" and "Big Spoiler".

First the plot:

This novel is based on a real event. Though I did not know this all the while I was reading it and read it as fiction. In brief, this story is about an English man named George Mallory who twice led British expeditions to climb up the Everest in 1920′s.

Caveat: Mild Spoiler

Archer describes the life of George Mallory and presents a live picture of his childhood, youth and his adult life. In this sense, this book is not really about the Everest mission or any controversies surrounding it but it is more about what material George Mallory really was. His natural desire to scale anything which looks tall, his uncompromisable love towards his wife Ruth and his ideas of "equality of opportunity" skills are very well established by Archer. As a result instead of being a mere "climber" to readers he becomes some sort of a role model.

The storyline is rather simple, which is so unlike the Archer we know of. But the Archer’s masterful depiction of the rivalry between two people("First Among Equals", "The Fourth Estate") with totally contrasting personalities is back to its magic here too. So George Finch is some sort of a foil for George Mallory(heck, they even share the same name!) and they both desperately want to beat each other in conquering the mountain first.

Archer describes the life of George Mallory and presents a live picture of his childhood, youth and his adult life. In this sense, this book is not really about the Everest mission or any controversies surrounding it but it is more about what material George Mallory really was. His natural desire to scale anything which looks tall, his uncompromisable love towards his wife Ruth and his ideas of "equality of opportunity" skills are very well established by Archer. As a result instead of being a mere "climber" to readers he becomes some sort of a role model.

Conclusion:(Caveat: Big spoiler ahead)
Whether Mallory reached the summit or not is still a subject of intense international debates and as a result of inconclusive evidence Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgoy are still credited as first humans to conquer the 28000 feet(well today it seems to be 29000 ft) tall mountain.

So if you like Archer and more importantly -you are one of the curious kinds, this one is absolutely worth your time and money. Go for it!

book review- The Fourth Estate (Jeffrey Archer)

I have been reading this novel: "The Fourth Estate" for about a month. Finally finished it yesterday. As expected from Jeffrey Archer, it is a well plotted and riveting story with a good measure of twists and turns thrown in. My verdict is a definite thumbs up, though there are a few things I wasn’t convinced with.

The Fourth Estate


First the plot. It kinda reminds me of the plot of an earlier novel by Archer, named "First Among Equals". There it was a battle of 4 politicians for the top chair in England, here it is a battle of two ruthless publishers- Keith Townsend and Richard Armstrong- to become numero-uno in the world publishing and newspaper industry. The real beauty in this novel is that you keep changing sides throughout this battle for supremacy- one moment you support Keith Townsend, another moment you go back rooting for Richard/Dick Armstrong! The reason for this wildly swinging loyalties is hidden in the basic human nature. Both of the chief protagonists demonstrate strengths unique to them and at the same time manifest common vice- a complete disregard for the means to achieve the ends. And thats where the famous Archer twists come in as you never know who of them might stoop to new lows to outsmart the other.

Coming to the writing style, its atypical of Jeffrey Archer. Keeping the readers guessing till the end of novel is a skill which is now mastered by many authors but doing the same continuously with each event in a 450 page novel is perhaps mastered by very few like Archer. The novel begins from the end of the story and then ensues a long flashback after which the story comes back to the present.

Caveat: Spoiler ahead. Skip the next paragraph to stay clear of it

The end of the novel however left me a bit unconvinced. I didn’t expect Armstrong to commit suicide, specially after the solidarity he showed in his end days. In the last board meeting in which the chairman resigned, he was as steadfast and ruthless as ever and didn’t show any sign of surrender. It is also difficult for me to digest that a fighter like him who fought all his life would not look for any rescuer like Keith got in EB. He knew he was in mess and he knew he needed $50 mn to survive. Why he made no attempt to generate that money, with the exception of thinking of selling his stake in NY star to Keith, is not very clear to me. He simply gives away his empire and disappears in disgrace and oblivion.

As someone who is interested in business side of our world, I wonder why Townsend and Armstrong were always after acquisitions of big established names in the newspaper industry. Townsend was in fact so desperate to buy newspapers that he could be sold coal mines at an exorbitant price in a package deal. Also, in most of then novel we are told only about the insane expenditure by the leading men- how they got so rich is kind of not clear. The figure of $3 billion, which Townsend offers for a major media firm in USA, looks a little too inflated to me, more so considering that it was supposed to happen in early 1980s.

One more thing. I like Jeffrey Archer novels for the learning opportunity they provide. I remember in my early days I was told by him about how Swiss banks work. Then, his short stories had me appreciate tiny tid-bits about life- legal loopholes, politics, etc. In this novel, I learnt more a range of topics- Nazi torture camps, Hitler’s nickname- "der Fuhrer", menace of labor unions, etc. It makes the reading so more interesting!

Final Verdict: 3.5/5

My other verdicts to give you some idea my rating scale and my literary tastes:
1. Atlas Shrugged: 4/5
2. Fountain Head: 4.5/5
3. 32 Short Stories by Archer: 4.5/5