I have a love-hate relationship with books which propose to take commonly-held beliefs or associations and turn them on their heads. On the one hand, they can be beautifully illustrative and enlightening—the very definition of learning. On the other hand, they can fall prey to sensationalism, they can over-hype the supposed upset, they can oversimplify, they can (sometimes) outright lie. I had such a critique of Freakonomics back in 2005, wherein I thought the approach taken was relatively glib and unsubstantiated.
I first heard of Gladwell’s latest book on NPR, while driving home from the airport in early January. Gladwell was summarizing the substance of his book’s introduction, and I was suitably interested to add it to my “to-read” list.
In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell—who, it must be said, has his bibliographic bona fides—proposes to take on commonly-held beliefs about the nature of successful. We are inclined, either because of our nature or perhaps just our creative culture via books and movies, to hold dear a rather simplistic and truculent view of success. Epitomized by Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” stories, our popular view of success hinges upon the extraordinary individual being so much smarter or more talented or more hardworking than everybody else that they achieve greatness despite impossible odds. We really do have an affinity for stories which promote outliers—people or event or things which fall outside of “normalcy.”
So goes the balloon, and in comes Gladwell wielding a sharp pin with which to pop it. Success, he argues, is very rarely a case of extraordinarily talent or genius, but often a matter of circumstance, luck, and timing. And so he goes on for 300 pages with cases to prove his point. In his introduction, he brings up the curious case of all-star Canadian hockey leagues, and why a disproportionate number of professional and high-level players have birthdays which fall in the first quarter of the calendar year. It turns out there is a perfectly reasonable explanation (tied to the cycle of juvenile hockey leagues), and this same phenomenon can be applied to other sports in other countries.
So goes the legend of Silicon Valley whiz-kids like Bill Gates and Bill Joy, geniuses like Christopher Langan and Robert Oppenheimer, successful bands like The Beatles, and New York lawyers. Most interesting to me was Gladwell’s extensive look at airline pilots, and how cultural power distance has a tremendous impact1 upon the frequency of airplane accidents.
Like any book which attempts to rephrase complex scientific, statistically, and sociological phenomena into language that a normal reader will understand, Outliers more than occasionally veers into the insultingly simplistic, condensing important and complex data down into short paragraphs of vague explanation. I sympathize with Gladwell insofar as he much necessary distill these disparate sciences down into something readable, but the high-level technical person in me would also appreciate more details and less summation (of which Gladwell appears to do a great deal, occasional twice or thrice over the same point, much to my consternation).
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from Outliers is that we should avoid our existing M.O. of segmenting the most obviously intelligent people in society and treating them different. To a great degree, Gladwell argues, the “outlier” and the mundane alike will achieve similar levels of success given the same opportunity. What we perceive as individual success is often the result of (unconscious) reinforcement that favors the obvious. Imagine what Canadian hockey teams could achieve, he argues for example, if there were two leagues, one for those born in each half of the year?
Popular science is necessarily a soft and cushy sort of object; despite those limitations, I think Gladwell has produced a wonderful book which, if nothing else, spurs one to think and investigate further.
- no pun intended[↩]