Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

December 4, 2008 — Leave a comment

I’m beginning to read Malcom Gladwell’s new book, Outliers. In it, he sets out to discover the secrets of the truly successful, of those who have achieved beyond the normal, aka an outlier.  He really sets out to dispell the notion that successful people are nature (he was born a genius/talented/special) and not nurture mixed with some really long hours at the office.  Maybe nurture isn’t the right word for the argument he lays out; he builds the case that there are very real, but maybe not obvious (at first glance) reasons successful people are successful – practice hours, month of birth, order of birth, etc…

Here’s a clip of a CNN interview Gladwell did with Anderson Cooper.  There are better clips, but this one gets to the heart of the book quickly:

After reading Nassim N. Taleb’s The Black Swan, my first reaction to Outliers is that Gladwell is falling into one of three black swan traps:  trying to concoct an after-the-fact story that explains these revolutionary events/people.  Taleb argues that these stories are nice (we’re humans, we like stories, that’s what we do), but they never provide any predictive power; we will never be able to determine the cause of Black Swans/Outliers BEFORE they happen.  So far, Gladwell offers two reasons for success:  luck & 10,000 hours of practice.  One we can do nothing about, and one, we can only hope to do something about.  10,000 hours is a long time.

Gladwell’s previous books have had profound impacts in the business world, and I’m waiting to finish to see what Outliers might have in store for us this time around.  I can begin to see an adaptation of the theory he uses for the success of many American tycoons (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates, Jobs) for those in social media (a trend I’m currently interested in).  But, again, other than the 10,000 hour rule, I can’t use any of his stories to help me be more successful.

After 70 pages, I’m skeptical.  Gladwell has put together a nice backstory for some audaciuosly successful & rich people, but that’s about it.  So far, all I’ve got is that people are a function of their circumstances.  If Bill Gates wasn’t Bill gates, someone else would be.  I’m still early into the book.  Hopefully, Gladwell will outline more predictivie elements, maybe even some within our control, of success.


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