Outliers The Story of Success – Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers is essentially Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis on what it takes to be a mega-successful person in today’s world, and how genius alone is not even close to being enough to guarantee “success” of any kind. Through detailed analysis of many famous contemporary success stories, he builds on his fascinating thesis to reveal to us the true ingredients or requirements for success, and how the extremely successful are outliers in terms of their prevalence in society. It is a book that, as another reviewer wrote, will inevitably make you think over your own life story, and gives you a new way of analysing such.

Gladwell employs thorough and rigourous analysis throughout this book to back-up his theory. He opens with an amazing account of one of the biases that society can impose, which are unwitting and invisible. The example being the Canadian hockey organization’s date-of-birth-based selection criteria. Its best left to the author to go into the details of it, but its truly fascinating, and a perfect example really of how small differences or biases in the beginnings of a system, can lead to massive biases over time.

One of the authors key discoveries here is that it apparently takes 10,000 hours of exposure to something, i.e. 10,000 hours working at something, or practising it, to become a true expert in that field. As usual, he makes a compelling case for this figure, and this for me is a real eye-opener. It really exposes the whole “talent over practise” philosophy as a fallacy, i.e. talent is not even close to being enough to guarantee success at some endeavour – practise is the key, regardless of your talent level. This is something I always believed myself, especially loving Aristotle’s saying that excellence is something we achieve by practising at excellence each day.

Nobody makes it on their own – didn’t you know? I do now, and one of the most interesting things about this book, one of its main selling points, are the stories and anecdotes of famously “successful” people, who superficially would appear to have made mega successful careers and lives for themselves, by themselves, but who in fact have all been beneficiaries of circumstance and privilige to varying degrees. These are people who are usually championed as examples of how to make it yourself, through sheer grit and by virtue of being a “visionary” or such. These myths are thankfully debunked here. For example, Bill Gates’ (and others) amazing privilege (wealthy parents and top-class private schooling) plus a huge dose of good luck, put him in the position he was in to start Microsoft. To his credit, he freely admits this luck and good fortune throughout interviews in this book, and it is refreshing to hear his honest take on his own stellar achievements.

Another vital ingredient in becoming a “success story”, is being at the right place at the right time, which is again illustrated through copious studies and examples. So the debunking of the myths of the stereotypical “came from nothing” success stories are great to read, but Malcolm also strives to elucidate one final key factor of success, which all of the afore-mentioned famous success stories have – namely, hard work and grit. There is no doubting the sheer toil and effort expended by the people studied in this book, and equally it just serves to highlight the fact there are no free rides in life – achievements are achieved through work and sacrafice, putting in the (really) long hours etc.

So overall, the bottom line is that without opportunity and luck, and often privilige, and without the figurative blood, sweat and tears, as well as being in the right place at the right time, this book makes it clear that the Bill Gates’ of this world would not of made it. Note, I did not mention genius or intelligence there – its not that intelligence or genius is not a factor in being successful, its just that compared to the other factors, they are almost an afterthought. This throws up some interesting combinations, such as talent and willingness to work yourself to the bone not being enough to guarantee success at something- luck and good fortune play a huge and vital part.  This is illustrated beautifully by Gladwell’s anecdote of a certain New York mega-lawyer, whose firm today bills for millions of dollars per day. This man explains to Malcolm how his father was also a lawyer who worked himself to the bone, and who had the intelligence and business acumen of the son, if not even more so. However, as the successful lawyer explains so eloquently, the difference between his father the pauper earning $25 a week, and the mega-rich son earning millions, was purely a function of time (better global prevailing economic situation for the son) and circumstance. At the end of the day, the father’s genius or intelligence mattered not a wit.

This leads us nicely to Malcom addressing the fundamental corollary of the book’s central thesis (regarding successful people), i.e. the eternal and fascinating question of why do people with so much talent and intelligence and promise, often not live up to their “potential”? Having read this book, it is clear that the fallacy of this view is in assuming that intelligence or genius offers the potential or promise of monetary, or other, success – it does not.

Ultimately then, this is a reassuring and comforting read, as it really makes you realise that good fortune and success is not purely related to intelligence or genius – it is a function of time, place, circumstance, luck, privilege, hard graft and intelligence. When seen in this light, I don’t feel so bad about never having achieved much!

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