Outliers: Review of A Pop-Psychology Best-Seller

outliers book cover

Malcolm Gladwell explores in Outliers what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful people, and his conclusion is one that many would rather not hear: often, it’s simply chance, coincidence, and happenstance that make people successful.

Bullet Summary

  • Success is sometimes a matter of external factors
  • Culture shapes us more than we think
  • Long practice is the main difference between good and amazing

Full Summary

About The Author: Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist, public speaker, and author of several books on psychology and psychology fun facts.
Among his other best-sellers are Blink, The Tipping Point and David and Goliath.

Introduction

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that success in life is often a matter of early advantage and circuitous circumstances.

Hard work goes on top and it’s also one of the most important variables, but hard work is also often dictated by circumstances.

For example, Bill Gates studied in the only middle school in the US with a computer terminal. There he had the chance to practice programming at Ph.D. level.
Would Gates have become Gates without that circuitous stroke of luck? Who knows…

Early Advantages Make The Difference

Hockey players who were born in the first three months of the year (January to March) are over-represented in the professional league.

Malcolm Gladwell says that’s because of early advantages and reinforcement.

Children born at the beginning of the year had more time to develop physically, which gave them an early advantage. Then they got positive reinforcement with feedback, results, and encouragement to keep going.
They ended both having more opportunity to practice more and wanting to practice more, which kept them going.

Many professionals didn’t become professionals because they were particularly good or talented. Just because they were born earlier and rode on that early advantage until the end.

The 10.000-hour rule

“Outliers” is possibly most famous for the 10.000-hour rule, which Gladwell borrowed from psychologist Anders Ericsson, author of Peak.

The rule says that the people who reached the highest highs in their profession seemed to have trained for 10.000 hours, which is more than most of their “very good” or “good” peers did.

My Note: 
This idea has been heavily criticized in the sense that training is a condition sine qua non, but it’s also not and enough to guarantee top performance by itself.
And reducing it to a number is simplistic and rather wrong.
Read more here:

the 10.000 rule is pop psychology
The 10.000 rule, albeit wrong, has spread like wildfire

Time Is Of The Essence

Gladwell looks at many successful tech entrepreneurs and notices that their birth dates also show a pattern: they were all born during the personal computing revolution period.

Getting into business during the digital revolution made it somewhat easier to achieve what they achieved.

Success was (also) a product of the time in which they grew up

My Note: 
This makes little sense to me.

And it’s more about sensationalistic journalism than true, deep analysis.

Gladwell is measuring his contemporary and successful entrepreneurs only. Of course the birth date of contemporary entrepreneurs will all be similar because entrepreneurs are more likely to cluster around a certain age. 

As we move ahead in time, more and more entrepreneurs will be born outside of the initial digital revolution. Yet, we aren’t going to say that successful tech entrepreneurs must be born in a specific time window.

This is not to say that being born in a certain period, like for example in the early days of a revolutionary technology cannot be an advantage: it can be a huge opportunity.
But if Gladwell had measured how many also failed, he would have probably realized that the numbers were pretty similar.

Language Advantages

Some languages provide an advantage in dealing with numbers.

For example:

Chinese Helps With Math

Chinese for example has shorter names for numbers. What difference does that make? Well, people can hold in their short term memories more of those numbers.
And that provides an advantage in mentally handling numers.

English Has Logic Weakness

The logical structure of languages also makes a difference.
The English language is not logical in the way it structures its number after 10.
In Korean, Japanese and Chinese instead of the number 11 is “ten one”, which makes logical sense.
And 24 is “two tens four”. This allows Asian kids, says Gladwell, to be one year ahead by age 6 when it comes to math.

My Note:
And yet again, this is only half of what a good analysis should do.
How about age 24, or 50? Does that advantage stay constant, diminish, or totally disappear?
I suspect it diminishes and very possibly disappears as people internalize the link.

Intelligence and Success Correlation

IQ points translate into success only up until 120.

Any point above that threshold doesn’t correlate anymore with success. To be successful indeed you don’t have to be a genius, it’s enough not to be too below average.

Gladwell also refers to “practical intelligence” as opposed to IQ, which he describes as knowing when to say what, to whom to say and how to say it. Basically, that’s social mastery and emotional intelligence.

outliers book cover

Wisdom From Outliers

This is what I enjoyed the most from “Outliers”:

  • As long as you’re good enough… Effort makes the difference

There are likely many, many fields where you can be in the top 5%.

Not every single field, but there are many. Once you are good enough, then the amount of time, energy, and deliberate effort you put into those activities will make all the difference between you and the rest and in the final results you will get.

  • Don’t listen to early results

Sometimes you can see it early if you’re good at something. But some other times not so. Stick to it for a while and don’t give up at the first difficulty.

  • The longer you stay at things, the better you are

As simple as that, yet so powerful. Also read Grit by Angela Duckworth.

CONS

“Outliers” is an interesting read, but we need to raise a few red flags:

  • The 10.000-hour rule is misleading

Naming a number of hours as a differentiator is preposterous. And the reality is, as usual, a bit more complex.

In different fields the amount of training will have different impact and not everyone can become world-class at everything solely based on training.

Also more important than the time is how people train, read The Talent Code, and the importance of deep practice.

  • Random patterns and shallow analysis

Some explanation made me think of Fooled by Randomness, which explains how men see patterns where there are none.
For example, the idea that rice provides “rice cultures” with the ability to stay focused for longer seemed truly nonsensical to me.

PROS

Some fascinating analysis
The Java founder, the Bill Gates story, the hockey players patters… All fascinating and highly instructive stuff.

Big humility lesson
Putting so many success in context is a big humility lesson that can be useful to many of us.

Emphasis on consistency
Albeit I believe the “10.000-hours rule” is very misleading, it does have a great advantage: it highlights how much effort matters. And that’s all in our control.

Outliers Review

I’ll say it outright: “Outliers” is not my favorite type of book.

To me, it’s more a collection of a curiosity with a smattering of pop-psychology than a truly enlightening wisdom and deep analysis.

“Outliers” takes complex life issues, applies some (random) research and popularize a few psychological principles in a way that makes them sound deep and smart.

And that makes for interesting reads for the layperson.

Whether or not they can contain life-changing advice or you can easily apply them to your life, that’s another question.

There is one hugely positive, important pro in books like “Outliers” though: they help readers to think outside of the box and look at less obvious explanations and variables.
And it puts to rest the idea that “it’s all talent” or “it’s all work”. It’s both. Plus some randomness.

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