Sunday, September 27, 2009


Book Review : Outliers - The Story Of Success
Author : Malcom Gladwell
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars

I have been planning on reading "Tipping Point" written by Malcom Gladwell, but when his new book "Outliers" came out, I decided to try it out before reading his earlier books.

First, this book is not about how to be successful. It is also not about what to learn from what successful people have done to become so. And is it not about examination of what all factors are needed to become successful.

The book's main focus is about what external factors (other than personal talent) were involved in achieving success. The author argues that, our cultural legacy, family upbringings, period in history is as important as innate talent, and may be more important.

The books starts with an interesting observation about the birth dates of professional sportsmen. It seems that being born in the 1st quarter of the year is crucial to being a Canadian hockey player. The same observation is true for many sports in many other countries. Why being born in January is better than being born in December ? Because of cut-off dates. So when a group of kids is being evaluated at a very young age, someone born in January is almost a year older than someone born in December of that same year. In early elementary years, this is a huge physical advantage. Hence in the very early stages of being filtering, the kids born in 1st quarter of the year get chosen and receive more focus, attention and training. The others are simply weeded out. In a well established system that takes kids from minor league to eventual major league, this virtually guarantees that future sports stars will have a birth date between Jan and April !

This should be enough to tell you what argument the author is trying to make in the whole book. You will hear about what advantages Bill Gates and Bill Joy had to become the titans of the computer industry. You will also learn why famous corporate lawyers are Jewish, why Korean Air had a miserable accident record and what they had to unlearn to become safer, why Asian kids are better at Math and much more.

The book is as easy and fun to read as it any book can be. Gladwell keeps things very interesting, includes lots of anecdotes, personal stories and interesting insights. It is enough to make this a "very good book", but not much more.

There are some problems. One is originality. How much of the research is author's own ? It doesn't always have to be. But then at least there has to be some great original insights that are obtained by tying research of seemingly disparate sources. That is absent. And why would there be any ? What the author is arguing against is a strawman. We already know that it takes a lot more than inborn talent.

It's interesting to know about the advantages of being born at the right period in history. But the phrase, "Being at the right place at the right time", is not new. It's great to put a number - 10000 hours - on the amount of practice needed. But we have been saying - "There is no substitute for hard work". And "It's not what you know, but whom you know that matters", and so on.

At the same time, it's also true that there is no substitute for talent either. In school I was quite good at math. But I had no illusion about being the next Isaac Newton. Not because I wasn't willing to put in 10000 hours. Being good at math also gave me an idea about exactly how good I wasn't. Same is true for chess. All grandmasters at the top level study hard. But their mind works in a very different way. Mere mortals like me, have no hope of ever being a super GM, even if I had started learning chess at age 2. You don't "become" Einstein. You have to be born as Einstein, work hard to remain an Einstein and then have the luck to finally become an Einstein.

The author - to be sure - is not arguing that talent does not matter. He is focusing on a different part of the story. That's fine. But precisely because of that, this is only a partial story of success.

The author offers some points to ponder. The advantages of which month you were born into and such are easy to nullify and will greatly benefit all societies. We all cannot become great, but by opening up opportunities to as many people as possible, we can all succeed at being good.

Overall, I can definitely recommend this book. It’s short, fun, very enjoyable and thought provoking.

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