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Book Review: "Outliers" – by Malcolm Gladwell

Last updated on May 25, 2020

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

This book, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, focuses on something completely different from his earlier ones, “The Tipping Point,” and “Blink.” The Tipping Point is about how small factors can add up to cause a big change, or, to tip something over. It’s about the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Blink is about how we process a tremendous amount of information in a flash and make decisions, without being aware of most of it.

outliers_bookOutliers is about what it really takes to be successful and stand out. It is a close look at how many of the famous people became so successful. It is about how cultures and rituals, and even, when you were born can affect your chances of success in certain fields, or even make you vulnerable for failure in some situations. This book challenges many popular beliefs about how we can be “self-made” and successful, and “rags to riches” stories that we hear about all the time.  It is about why “it takes a village to raise a child.” It is about how “being at the right place at the right time” has played a significant role in many a “successful” person’s life; about hidden advantages that help some people to stand out, beyond what is commonly acknowledged – talent, hard-work, dedication, etc.

Gladwell uses examples that include top ice-hockey players, software enterpreneurs, aircraft pilots, music bands, and many other things. He starts off by analyzing why most of the leading ice-hockey players in the Canadian league are born between the months of January and March. How did the birth date matter? Do kids born in certain months of the year have a better chance of excelling at school? Was Bill Gates’ success in building a world-class company just due to his enormous talent and hard-work? How about Bill Joy’s success in creating operating systems? Steve Jobs? What did the Beatles have in them that other musical bands didn’t have?

He argues that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to really become an expert at something. An opportunity to do so, along with strong passion, ability and the willingness are all very essential, he says. He also uses some case-studies of aircraft mishaps to illustrate how cultural background and practices can become hurdles in a professional environment, causing very abnormal kind of failures. On the same lines, he tries to show a correlation between a culture such as that of Asian peasants — who work diligently in rice paddy fields, almost round the year — can put their children at an advantage when it comes to academic achievements. He tries to contrast how a schooling system with reduced hours and long vacations puts underpriveleged kids at a disadvantage, while a more rigorous system motivates and drives them to live up to their potential. Towards the end of the book, he even uses examples from his own family — his parents, grandparents and himself — and talks about the kind of circumstances that contributed to success.

I think this book will affect people in several ways. It will make you sit back and think about all the success stories that you have heard about, and wonder how much more is hidden beyond the obvious. For those who believe that they have achieved what they wanted to, it gives them a chance to step back and think about all the factors that may have helped them along the way, and acknowledge them. For those who have worked hard and yet think that they could get where they wanted to, it helps them to understand it is not all their fault, and perhaps there were things that didn’t quite help them. But, I think the most significant help that a lot of people can derive from this book is to gain an understanding of not-so-obvious factors that affect us positively or negatively day-to-day, and learn to make the best of the favorable things, and also to find ways to reduce the impact of negative things. There are some very valuable lessons regarding how different study habits can lead to different levels of academic achievements among young children — certainly something that every caring parent would pay attention to.

I listened to the audio-version of this book,  which includes an interview with the author.

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