The Latest Malcolm Gladwell

I really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and now he’s churning out the books. His is an appealing formula that is part psychology, part economics, and part science. :) This month’s book club will be looking at his latest book.

Outliers

An interesting theory of why individuals succeed based on their circumstances rather than their talent.

In “Outliers”, Gladwell provides anecodes, scientific studies, and personal history to support the idea that exceptional individuals (the outliers of the title) are more due to the circumstances of their birth and the amount of practice they’ve put in, than being due to exceptional talent. It’s a quick read, and engagingly written, so easy to enjoy.

However, is it a controversial idea that success comes from more than just talent? Do I need to give any examples other than former US President George W Bush? Perhaps in (some parts of) the US, it is a widely held belief that success comes solely from individual merit, but I hope that most have a more nuanced view. So, the author does not have to work very hard to convince us.

Although, perhaps he should have, as the book is written to build out the theory rather than the demonstrate the theory’s truth. There is little scientific method in such a treatment, as even though we are shown some successful individuals meet Gladwell’s criteria, we aren’t shown if all individuals that meet Gladwell’s criteria are successful. In this way, it is a bit like The Millionaire Next Door (which I reviewed here) – a book that proposes the attributes of millionaires but doesn’t show how many with those attributes achieve millionaire status.

These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is more concerning that the book has a somewhat racist message. Jews are successful lawyers, Koreans are poor pilots, and Asians are good at maths. Although supported by his research, there is a moral tangle with accepting such claims, and this isn’t dealt with in the book.

That said, it is an enjoyable and interesting read. I didn’t find it as good as The Tipping Point, but given the potential for debate, I think it will be a good book-club book.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2

8 thoughts on “The Latest Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. Hi Andrew, Interesting article. I have read a number of articles in Scientific American magazine alluding to studies suggesting that practice and perseverance are far more important to “success” than raw talent.

    In my experience, the one defining attribute of millionaires that I have met, is that they all have at least $1 million…

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=high-aptitude-minds

    and

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coaching-the-gifted-child

  2. Thanks for the links.

    Also on the topic of success factors.. I remember coming across a saying somewhere, that although stubborn self-belief was part of the recipe for success, it is also a key ingredient in failure.

  3. As for your comment about stubborn self-belief being a key ingredient in failure, actually I think a lack of self-belief is a much more likely indicator of failure. If you believe you are going to fail, then you are unlikely to even try. Thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy is born!

  4. @T.A., the book club is monthly, and Kate and I are taking turns at the moment, so I only need to do one book every two months!

    But I’ve encountered several people who seem absolutely convinced of the genius of their own wacky ideas. I doubt anyone would be able to convince them that there were better uses of their time.

  5. Hey – look at the guy who invented Koosh Balls! Tying a bundle of rubber bands together and selling it is a pretty wacky idea, but he believed in them and ended up selling his company for about $10million! I’m not saying that every wacky idea is a million dollar idea, but that if you don’t believe in your wacky idea, you will never have the guts to invest your time and effort into making it work. Thus, self-belief isn’t a guarantee of success, but it is a necessary pre-condition.

  6. I agree that it’s a primary character trait of successful entrepreneurs. Sadly, it’s also a trait of those who waste their lives on futile ideas. This is just an example of why it’s so difficult to pick out success factors if you only look at the successful. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that losers aren’t particularly interesting, so history forgets about them.

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