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Book review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

OutliersOutliers by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book changed my perspective on achievement and success. Gladwell posits that success depends not on extraordinary talent, but extraordinary opportunities. He makes a compelling case that there’s no such thing as a “self-made” man, but that we’re all products of our cultural legacy, community, and advantages available to us. I especially liked the recurring theme that successful people consistently work harder than their peers; their achievement is a function of their persistence, not their talent.

The book is mostly stories and anecdotes, sprinkled throughout with statistics and analyses. Gladwell is a long-winded storyteller, and takes his time getting to the point. I lowered my rating of the book because of this. I was bored silly by the lengthy chapter on how airplane miscommunications and crashes can be attributed to cultural legacies regarding respect for authority and assertiveness. But, as a technologist, I liked the story of how Bill Gates’ unique opportunities to practice programming during his formative years led him to Microsoft fame and fortune.

Gladwell sets out to prove that (to paraphrase), success arises from the steady accumulation of advantages; when and where you were born, what your parents did for a living, and the circumstances of your upbringing. Our lives are a web of advantages and disadvantages, whether deserved or undeserved. Successful people are those in the right place at the right time, who jump on the opportunities they have to work hard.

Gladwell succinctly summarizes the book near the end, as follows:
“Success follows a predictable course. It’s not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own. It’s a gift; the successful are those who have been given opportunities, and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”


I liked the point that as long as you have a base level of talent in an area, your success depends on practice. It takes about 10,000 hours of practice to attain expertise, which usually takes about 10 years. Also, the law of diminishing returns applies to intelligence; once you have enough, it ceases to provide an advantage.

Gladwell provides interesting insight into such questions as why Asians excel at math, and why American schoolchildren lag academically. He says that Asian numbering systems (especially Chinese) are more intuitive than Western systems, and their historical cultural legacies of hard work give Asians advantage over Westerners. He also shows the detrimental effects of short school days and summer vacations on American schoolchildren, because they spend less time practicing skills and more time forgetting.



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