“Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell | Quintillion Ink-Strokes

Previous, I talked about table-tennis player Matthew Syed‘s discussion of the 10,000-hour rule where he mentions Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, so I took the opportunity to delve deeper into it. There appears to be a coffee stain on the cover, though nonetheless I am not concerned with the condition so long as I can read it.

Plot

Gladwell’s nonfiction book Outliers mainly focuses on the summaries of various famous and historical figures and attempts to analyze their success. The purpose of these analyses is to not focus on the singular topics behind a person’s success, such as intelligence or upbringing, rather on the spatial and chronological surroundings that enabled their successes in the first place.

Themes

History is a major theme in this book, particularly when looking at the events that led to the success of certain historical figures such as Andrew Carnegie and Joe Flom. Events such as both World Wars and the Great Depression determine the success or downward failure. Gladwell orients the novel to claim that those deterministic factors are which family a person is born into and the date in which they were born. He also notes that cultural history would also influence how a person response to a particular situation, like in the case of Southern violence being descended from the honor culture of the original Scotch-Irish immigrants.

Communication is a major part of this book, particularly when it came to the Hofstede’s Dimensions as it applied to different cultures, which dealt with a spectrum of cultures that were more subtle or more blunt. Though the chapter dealing with the plane crashes diverge a bit from the book’s premise.

There are many professions that are the subjects of Gladwell’s book. It begins talking about sports, which was what Matthew Syed mainly talked about in his own book, though it gets into more detail about other professions, such as law, academics, and clothing.

Gladwell emphasizes the time it would take to become an expert, but also the windows of opportunities that would have to be present in order to make this evolution commence. He emphasizes the fact that famous experts would have to be born in the exact times in order to take advantage of the technological revolutions that would have taken place, such as industrial manufacturing and the internet; as well as in sports when children who are born in January are usually chosen in hockey because they have a wide window of practice before the drafting dates come up.

Not only does time become a major theme in his book, but also the issue of intelligence as a determiner of success. As he writes of scientific studies and people with incredibly high IQ’s, he starts making the distinction between being smart and being clever. He ultimately concluded that cleverness is a better determiner of success than intelligence, since people who are clever are able to utilize their imagination and to see gaps in the world that even smart people cannot.

My main issue that I have with the way Gladwell establishes these deterministic parameters for these outliers is that there are exceptions to his rule about exceptions not being the rule (if that makes sense). When listing famous hockey players, he notes that not all of them were born in January. Also, he mentions that it would take 10 years to successfully master any subject in 10,000 hours, he seems to think that it applies people who were born under the right star. If one were to do the math, as I did in the article about Matthew Syed’s book, it would not necessarily take 10 years (granted 10,000 hours is a long time that requires a habitual level of dedication).

Gladwell did emphasize the main points of becoming successful, which include dedication and perseverance. He especially highlights this with the agricultural practices of rice farmers in South China who work so diligently for 3,000 hours annually. Because they have intimate knowledge of the landscape, this causes them to work hard. This work ethic is then incorporated into their worldview, which is why, Gladwell argues, Chinese students are diligent in their own studies.

Author

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for the New York Times and was a reporter for the Washington Post. Because of his journalistic background, he provides a view of the secret behind famous experts by explaining the circumstances that surround them.

The ending chapter is dedicated to his own mother’s cultural legacy, which takes place in Jamaica. Gladwell discusses in detail the cultural legacy of her family from the times of slavery up to her own marriage to an English scholar named Graham Gladwell.

At one point, Gladwell mentions that his literary agency, Janklow and Nesbit, was started by Mort Janklow whose father was one of the Jewish lawyers mentioned in his analyses. Perhaps it is the importance of practical intelligence that enabled Gladwell to become a published author in the first place.

Writing Style

As used in the title of the book, the word outlier is used by Gladwell in order to accurately describe the exceptional gifted individual who is able to utilize his own intelligence to become successful.

Upon narrowing the focus of the book on the issue of intelligence, Gladwell distinguishes two different types of intelligences. Analytical intelligence involves what one would normally think of intelligence, which would be profound knowledge of basic subjects; while practical intelligence involves being able to effectively communicate with people and understanding social contexts.

As for his own writing style, Gladwell is quite blunt in his deterministic assertions of the qualifications of being an outlier either within the footnotes or in the text itself.

Real World Application

This book is relevant in such a way that it focuses a lot on the environments of various historical figures, contemporary or in the past. I was hoping that Gladwell would focus more on the 10,000-hour rule, though it get me to contextualize the historical and cultural circumstances that would give any of the people mentioned in the book their advantages.

Suggest This To…

I would suggest this to someone who is looking forward to becoming an expert in any field. However, since Gladwell emphasized that a lot of the famous experts like Mozart and Bill Gates began their practice in the earliest years of their own lives, I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who has children whom they wish to lead a successful life. It would take a devoted amount of hours to become an expert, but Gladwell emphasized that childhood is the most crucial part of someone’s life to become an expert. He would seem to think that his own book would be important for providing a familial foundation, rather than on individual achievement.

 

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Outliers: The Story of Success.” 1st edition. Back Bay Books. 2011.

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