I’ve read plenty of nonfiction books, and I learn at least one thing from them. There are a few that I can call eye-opening. These include What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna- Attisha and today’s subject Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. Published in 2008, the latter details what makes the “outliers” aka the best, the brightest, the most famous, and the most successful different from the rest. Its revelations blew my mind, and it’s highly accessible. These make it worth the read despite the issues that have come to light since its release.
Outliers: The Story of Success discusses why the outliers succeed, but not in the way one would think. Instead of focusing on the qualities that successful people possess, Gladwell emphasizes where they are from. These include their culture, family, generation, and experiences from their upbringings.
For a long time, I thought that the reason why certain people became successful was a combination of hard work and being at the right place at the right time. While Gladwell acknowledges this, he asserts that it’s more than that. He conveys through quotes from people like Bill Gates and graphs that show similar “coincidences” as to why some make it big, while others don’t. For example, in a section of a chapter entitled “The 10,000-Hour Rule,” Gladwell talks about how Gates was at the right age to take advantage of the 1970s and 1980s computer boom. He even seized the opportunities given to him like using a time-sharing terminal at his high school in 1968, which inched him closer to the famous rule (p. 50-54). In an earlier chapter, the author discusses the phenomenon of Canadian hockey players mostly having January, February, and March birth dates. He uses various graphs to display the birth dates of each player, for instance, from the 2007 Medicine Hat Tigers (p. 20-21). He explains that Canada has an “eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1.”
If a boy turns 10 on January 2, then he would be in the same class as someone who wouldn’t be 10 until the end of the year, which displays differences in physical maturity (p. 24). Knowing how coaches are scouting out for more mature players, it’s not coincidental to see that bigger, more talented, and more coordinated ones are chosen, and they happened to have similar birth dates.
Another aspect that Gladwell discusses is how one’s culture informs their work ethic and success. In one chapter, he talks about how the descendants of Asian rice farmers tend to be good at math and hardworking. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Emily, that sounds racist.”
I know. I thought this too, but trust me, there’s more to it. With the math component, Gladwell proclaims that it’s easier to memorize numbers in Chinese than it is in English. He cites Stanislas Dehaene’s book The Number Sense. That book asserts that the Chinese numbering system requires less syllables to say the numbers than it does for the English one. Given how people store “digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds,” it’s not hard to see why Chinese children would have an easier time counting and memorizing numbers (p. 228).
For the diligence aspect, that comes from what rice farmers have to do. Gladwell asserts that if a farmer in the West wanted to expand his yield, they would obtain “more sophisticated equipment, which allow[s] [them] to replace human labor with mechanical labor” and clear more fields (p. 232).
As for Asian rice farmers, to do the same thing, they would find ways to become more adept “at fertilizing, and spend a bit more time monitoring water levels, and do a better job keeping the claypan absolutely level, and make use of every square inch of [their] rice paddy” according to anthropologist Francesca Bray (p. 233). This is so because of the limited money and land. China has proverbs like “No food without blood and sweat” and “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich” (p. 238). As a result, Gladwell proclaims that this hard work mentality transferred to their descendants.
All of this works because the book is accessible. Gladwell doesn’t use fancy jargon unless needed. All he really needs is language that anybody can understand from a mathematician to a janitor as well as cited sources, bibliographies, and graphs. He even includes footnotes to clarify certain arguments and facts.
It has also come to my attention that Outliers has come across some criticism for its arguments ever since its publication 14 years ago. For starters, reviewers have noted that they’re not sure what to do with the information given. Some authors have a clear message with what readers should do after reading their work, but others like Gladwell in this case don’t. He wants readers to interpret the information for themselves, instead of being spoon fed.
Another criticism is that there weren’t any female or non-American “outliers” used as examples. Outside of Gladwell’s own Jamaican grandmother, this is definitely true, especially with that he put that story as the epilogue. Now, one may say that this book was published in 2008, that was a different time. This is not true. Some Goodreads reviews from that year express the same concern. The reviewer Allie sums up her reaction about the lack of female “outliers” the best.
The final one of these involves the 10,000-hour rule. Gladwell asserts that 10,000 is the amount of hours that one has to put in to become an expert. He cited the article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by K. Anders Ericsson, Rath Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer for his main argument (p. 288). However, there have been articles and videos like this one that discuss how it’s not about the quantity of hours to achieve expertise, but about quality as well as people achieving success even if they haven’t reached that goal. From what I read, Gladwell fails to acknowledge the latter aspect. Even Paul McCartney had this to say when the author used the Beatles as an example of this theory:
“I mean there are a lot of bands that were out in Hamburg who put in 10,000 hours and didn’t make it, so it’s not a cast-iron theory,” he says. “I think, however, when you look at a group who has been successful … you always will find that amount of work in the background. But I don’t think it’s a rule that if you do that amount of work, you’re going to be as successful as the Beatles.”
There’s no doubt of the rule’s popularization through Outliers and how it has influenced the work ethics of people like Billie Eilish. At the same time, people shouldn’t hold themselves to a high standard like the 10,000-hour theory regardless of where they work.
All in all, I can see why Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell became so popular. Despite what has been left out and how the 10,000-hour rule has been debunked, its overall arguments and how they’re presented are its highlights. It’s definitely a book for those not looking for solutions. I would also recommend it to those who love Gladwell’s other works as well as those who are interested in how success works. In spite of its issues, I would still call Outliers eye-opening.
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