Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell — Book Review

The Story of Success

One of my absolute favourite authors. “Outliers” is so good that I’ve read it twice. I would rate it at 9/10. Near perfect score. The book was so well written that it seems to race along, and even to be more persuasive than the evidence he might presents.

I actually used his arguments during a business workshop which is used to determine performance indicators and performance standard benchmarking for an organization.

He did a great job of challenging existing notions of where success comes from, and of proposing new models to account for social context and various mitigating factors. “Outliers” points out many details on the success that often go unnoticed, and provides potential routes for social change and professional excellence.

As much as I love it as it is, the book isn’t perfect, it might be better if Gladwell takes a look at another angle, that is of successful people who really don’t fit his models or fields where it doesn’t quite apply.

Nonetheless, it is original, useful and excellently fun!


Outliers — main key reading points from the book.

  • The common model of success only tells half the story.
  • Most successful people who become exceptional at what they do put at least 10,000 hours of practice.
  • Genius must be paired with practical intelligence.
  • Intelligence is a threshold, meaning, we need to be sufficiently smart to succeed. Beyond that, intelligence actually has a rather little impact on our ultimate achievement and success.
  • When often overlook important social and cultural factors when we personalize success.
  • Family background most often than not shapes practical intelligence and strongly influences success.
  • Our regional, cultural and ethnic backgrounds affect how we respond to conflict and crisis, and how we communicate.
  • This impact continues even long after we have moved away from our so-called roots.

Outliers — What’s the Secret of Success?

Now, we all know that those who succeed must work hard, but we also know that lots of people work hard but don’t succeed.

We also almost assume that some superstar such as Messi, CR7, James Lebron must have some distinct talent or gift, right? They must be somehow special since seems to be the only one who can do what they can do.

According to Gladwell, that’s the common explanation of why some people do well and others don’t and it is wrong or, at least, it tells only part of the story.

In leaving out the other elements of success, this old model dangerously distorts reality. It personalizes a process that, while personal, is also social and cultural. It thus leaves people looking for talent in the wrong places.


For example…

Take the Canadian Hockey League. Its late-teenage athletes are superb players. They’re fit and talented, and many turn professional. However, though they all pour out endless energy to reach the top, that’s only half the story.

The other half is found in what biologists call the “ecology” of a specific living thing. A tall oak tree standing in the forest didn’t just come from a good acorn; that acorn also landed in the right place, on good soil with no other trees blocking the sun, and so on.

Looking back at the Canadian Hockey League example, these athletes are superior, partially, because of their work and gifts, and, partially, because of the intersection of random chance and an arbitrary social choice. Right, luck does play a significant role.

Most of the champions are born in the first few months of the year which makes a big difference for the child’s development, therefore, they are already larger, more coordinated and more promising than those born later the same year when competing for a place in the team. Thus, they get singled out early as having more potential and receive more coaching and more time on the ice (more practice time).

As a result, they become better hockey players than slightly younger kids who were born in the same year. Adults focus resources on them early in their development, but it isn’t their talent that gets rewarded; it is their birth dates or rather their ‘luck’.

Gladwell suggests that in order to balance this and to harvest any genuine talent, it might be better to have two hockey systems. The same holds for schools. Rather than grouping kids by age beside older peers, thus creating an uneven playing field, make two or more tracks.


Outliers — The Impact of Practice Time

If we were to track a group of potential professionals in an area such as music from childhood through adulthood, a marked pattern emerges: Their final status depends on how much they practice.

  • Strong amateurs accumulate about 2,000 hours of practice by adulthood.
  • Future music teachers build up about 4,000 hours.
  • Really good students amass about 8,000 hours and
  • Elite performers” invest about 10,000 hours of practice.

And as Gladwell’s research study suggest this 10,000-hour marker carries over to other fields, such as sports, the arts and even technical training, like computer programming.

For example, consider Bill Joy, who rewrote UNIX and Java, put in parallel practice time. That’s what carried Joy to stunning computer feats. But it wasn’t dedication alone that let him succeed; it was also the right situation.

In the 1970s, Joy attended the University of Michigan which was one of the few places in the U.S. at the time with the resources to let many people practice programming at once. Joy didn’t go to Michigan to study computers but rather he stumbled across the computer centre by accident. But, once he did, he could program round the clock, due to access and to a glitch in the system that let students get more than their allotted computer time.

Gladwell also talks about Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs.


Outliers — Being a Genius Is Not Enough

Now, Gladwell makes a glaring example of the brilliant Christopher Langan won $250,000 on a quiz show called 1 VS. 100, he became famous for his staggering IQ, said to be “too high to be accurately measured.” Langan’s childhood intellectual accomplishments were stunning. He talked at six months old, taught himself to read by age three, read Principia Mathematica at 16 and “got a perfect score on his SAT, even though he fell asleep” during the exam.

Nevertheless, he achieved little success until he won the quiz show because pure intellectual genius alone is not enough. It must be paired with “practical intelligence,” which Langan’s life had systematically omitted. His mother was isolated from her family and had four sons, each by a different man. Langan’s father was an abusive alcoholic. Langan lost his first college scholarship because he was a social misfit, and car trouble kept him from his classes at Montana State. He raked clams, worked in factories and took jobs as a bouncer at bars. He never really used his intelligence professionally. Which I think is a great loss to humanity.

On top of Langan’s story, the stories and example of Robert Oppenheimer also make an interesting read.


The Social Roots of Conflict and Math Ability

He also touches on Asian superiority in math which according to Gladwell has clear cultural roots. Asians have linguistic advantages. The Chinese words for numbers are shorter than the English words, thus easier to process quickly. Japan, Korea, and China’s counting system are more logical, too; rather than using new words for numbers greater than ten, it makes combinations: “Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two.” Thus, adding and subtracting are almost automatic: Say the words and you add them.

Some Asian mathematical superiority comes, surprisingly, from historical contrasts between Asian agriculture, especially rice growing, and European farming. In 18th-century Europe, peasants worked hard in the spring to plant their fields, worked somewhat hard in the summer to weed them and laboured hard again to harvest in the fall. They were sometimes idle in the winter and had many days off because of how the plants grew.


By contrast, rice farming took regular, extremely hard work. Asian peasants had to prepare rice paddies with an established, constantly monitored water flow. Rice crops were timed for two annual yields from the same fields. Farmers could choose among a much larger array of seeds, switching strains of rice from one planting to another.

This produced a deeply ingrained cultural predisposition toward working very long hours while maintaining focused attention on multiple factors: exactly what I need to master math.

Overall, as I mentioned in the post early on, I love the book. It’s awesome and easy to read. The examples are not inclusive but then again, arguments against Gladwell’s premise could be done or research by reading similar topics from another author.

If you’re thinking about what to read next, don’t look any further, this might be your best bet.

Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers



Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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