Current Issues/Society

Review: Outliers

Cover of "Outliers," featuring dark text on a white background with a small purple marble in the middle
Image from Malcolm Gladwell

Title: Outliers: The Story of Success

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: Racism

Back Cover:

There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them-at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. And in revealing that hidden logic, Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential.

In The Tipping Point Gladwell changed the way we understand the world. In Blink he changed the way we think about thinking. In Outliers he transforms the way we understand success.

Review:

I almost started this review by saying I had low expectations for this book, but that’s not really true – I didn’t have really any expectations for this book. I picked it up mainly because it was an audiobook, I’d had it on my reading list for years, and his other book The Tipping Point was okay. I didn’t expect to be thrilled, but I also didn’t expect to be let down.

Outliers surprised me.

Of course, I have the same complaint with Outliers as I did with The Tipping Point – it’s not very practical. It explores the path to success for lots of people (including Bill Gates, hockey players, a New York lawyer, and a middle schooler from the Bronx), but it doesn’t explain how to become a success (or predict if you or someone else will become one). But also, there’s kind of a reason for that.

You know the American idealism of “if you work hard enough you’ll succeed”? In Outliers, Gladwell surrounds that concept with a ton of TNT and lights the fuse.

His entire premise with this book is that success takes hard work, but it also takes being born into or being given a particular set of circumstances that make all the difference. For example:

  • Bill Gates was born at the right time so he was a teenager when computers started appearing in universities and businesses and had wealthy parents who could send him to an elite private school that got a computer – therefore enabling him to have a ridiculous amount of practice with and understanding of computers by the time he dropped out of college.
  • Canadian hockey players are unlikely to succeed if they’re born April through December, because the league cutoff date is January 1 and players born at the beginning of the year are slightly older (and therefore bigger, more coordinated, and better) when it comes time to pick the best players for better training in elementary school.
  • Lawyer Joseph Flaum was born to immigrant parents who had been in America long enough to afford send him to law school, but was Jewish so unable to get a job at a big law firm – so he started his own firm taking acquisitions cases that no one else would take, and when acquisitions suddenly became a big business he and his firm was already on top.
  • And Chris Langan, one of the smartest people in the world by IQ, who spent most of his life working as a bouncer in a New York bar and never finished college – because he came from a low-income background and never learned how to negotiate with authority to get what he needed.

Though it’s not labeled as such, Outliers is really about how privilege affects success and how the circumstances of your birth influence the rest of your life. Though it doesn’t touch much on race or gender, if you want to start exploring class privilege and its effects, this is a good book to start with. And if you want to know why higher classes seem to get ahead faster with less work, despite America’s “work hard and you’ll succeed” idealism, definitely give it a read.

(A note on the trigger warning: I honestly didn’t see racism in the book, but I am white. It was pointed out to me during an anthropology class a couple years ago that Gladwell’s treatment of Koreans in chapter 7 is racist, so I listed that as a trigger.)

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Current Issues/Society

Review: The Tipping Point

The cover of "The Tipping Point," featuring dark green text on a light tan background
Image from Malcolm Gladwell

Title: The Tipping Point

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger warnings: Mentions of murder/death

Back Cover:

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas.

Review:

Confession time: I “read” this as an audiobook. Actually the first audiobook I’ve listened to since Stuart Little in third grade. So my experience with this book (and how much I retained from it) is a little different than if I’d have read it as a traditional book. I picked it up, though, precisely because it was an audiobook, as my morning commute has gone from 10 minutes to 40 minutes and I decided to try to maximize my driving time. I also picked it up because I have several Malcolm Gladwell books on my reading list, and I honestly didn’t even read the back cover.

This book was definitely interesting. Gladwell presents a framework that explains how all trends, from fashion to products to crime rates, happen and why. He also explains the role of different kinds of people (who he calls “Mavens,” “Salesmen,” and “Connectors”) in starting and influencing trends. All in all, it made for a fascinating theory.

The main drawback is that it seems like just theory. The book was more illustrative than prescriptive – it gave a lot of examples of how things from crime to shoes fits into his framework, but it doesn’t actually give any practical advice on how to use that framework. There’s nothing that tells you specifically how to start a trend, influence a trend, plot the course of a current trend, or predict what’s going to be the next trend. It’s more about fitting what’s happened in the past into his framework than anything – which is interesting, but I’m all about practical application.

Overall, this was a good book. It was interesting, and the concept of the tipping point makes a lot of sense. But even though it was interesting, I didn’t find it useful, and that’s a big strike against it in my book.