Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Another Malcolm Gladwell, you say? It is indeed. I’ve just finished his podcast Revisionist History, and I’m anxiously awaiting season 6. If you haven’t listened yet, I highly recommend it. Gladwell’s soothing voice, captivating anecdotes, and fascinating historical facts are bound to provide you with a new perspective on the past.
But for now, back to the present. After reading Talking to Strangers, I wanted to read all of Gladwell’s books. I ordered Outliers and Blink, and since I apparently can’t read his books in chronological order, I started with Outliers.
What is an outlier?
- something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
- a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample
Gladwell redefines success
In Outliers, Gladwell examines our understanding of success by looking at a successful person’s circumstances. Gladwell wants to change our idea of success just as Dr Stewart Wolf had changed our understanding of health.
Wolf had studied Italian immigrants living in Roseto, Pennsylvania, from 1935 to 1985 to investigate why rarely anyone from Roseto under the age of sixty-five had heart disease. This while neighbours in Bangor and Nazareth showed a higher incidence of illness and heart attack. What Wolf found was that “…the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world”.
Since then, the Roseto Effect has been widely cited as evidence for the positive effects of social cohesion and support on longevity. But to get there, Wolf had to “appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are,” Gladwell explains.
Why your birthday matters
It’s not only our environment and the people we surround ourselves with that matters but also when we are born. From discovering that most all-star hockey players in Canada are born in January to finding out why successful lawyers in New York in the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s were almost all Jewish, Gladwell shows how when we are born influences our chances of achieving success.
“The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with,” Gladwell writes.
Why your POB matters
Your place of birth (POB) is just as important as the decade in which you are born. Gladwell looks at why Korean Air had a track record of plane crashes in the 1980s and 1990s, and what role cultural legacy had to play.
This chapter was one of my favourites. As someone with flying anxiety, I found it interesting (and somewhat comforting) to learn that aeroplane crashes rarely occur due to engine failure or a rudder suddenly snapping. “The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors,” Gladwell writes. So, Korean Air didn’t have faulty planes or mechanical problems; they had a human problem.
Pilots need to communicate and share information in the clearest manner possible. But what if your culture values and respects authority above all else? The first officer might not be as likely to tell the pilot (his superior) that he is making a mistake. To avoid sounding disrespectful, the first officer might resort to mitigated speech, i.e. “any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said”. But when you only have a few seconds to make life or death decisions, not clearly communicating can mean the difference between a crash and a soft landing.
Gladwell writes: “Aviation experts will tell you that it is the success of this war on mitigation as much as anything else that accounts for the extraordinary decline in airline accidents in recent years”. Gladwell details how Korean Air turned things around and how small changes in the way pilots and first officers communicate brought about success. “And what Korean Air did … was to give its pilots the opportunity to escape the constraints of their cultural legacy.”
Why language matters
Ever wondered why Asian children are so good at Maths? It turns out that it has more to do with language than with numbers. Gladwell writes: “…there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed”.
Gladwell explains that countries like China, Japan and Korea have a logical counting system.
Because the counting system is logical, it is much easier to grasp and makes basic functions, such as addition, much easier. “That difference means that Asian children learner to count much faster than American children,” Gladwell writes.
The 10 000-hour rule
Of course, when and where you are born, and the language you speak is not the only indicator of success. Gladwell explains that not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at a professional level. “Achievement is talent plus preparation,” Gladwell writes.
But exactly how much preparation is needed? “Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours,” Gladwell explains. The neurologist Daniel Levitin confirms: “…ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything”. Through a unique set of circumstances and extraordinary opportunities, Mozart, Bill Gates, and The Beatles had extra time to practise and hone their skills, which allowed them to become a musical prodigy, an innovative visionary, and the most influential band of all time, respectively.
In Outliers, Gladwell argues that there is no such thing as a self-made man (or woman). Our place in history, our culture, language, geographic location, and circumstances, all influence the opportunities available to us.
The factor we do have control over, however, is how hard we work. None of the outliers achieved success without putting in at least ten thousand hours. “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”