Outliers – A Book Review

Recently, I listened to the audio book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In this post, I will share what I liked and didn’t like about the book. And I would welcome your feedback–particularly, if you’ve read the book.

Gladwell defines an outlier as something or someone that falls outside normal expectations. He points to examples like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and he dispels the notion that these men excelled on their genius alone. Through these examples and other case studies, he suggests that successful people are more a product of uncontrollable factors or opportunities, and cultural upbringings rather than individual uniqueness.

It’s the turtle-on-the-fence-post scenario. None of us become successful through just our own efforts and abilities. Our time in history, our relationships, our opportunities, and, well, our breaks have made us who we are. (I would also add faith and spiritual values) The fact that Bill Gates was born in the year 1955, of course, positioned his rise to computer stardom. And in his early years, he had access to a tremendous amount of computer programing experience. However, I don’t believe Gates was the only one born with these advantages and opportunities. Gates needed the success of many other people–predecessors and peers–to get where he is now.

I love to read books about how to become more successful, but I never sensed this to be a self-help book. There doesn’t seem to be many concrete takeaways other than the admonition to put yourself in the best possible environments and practice your skills and abilities towards excellence–not necessarily perfection. It’s always encouraging to be reminded that we don’t need to be a genius or a perfectionist to succeed. Do your best, and success will follow, as they say.

I did not agree with some of Gladwell’s philosophy about individualism. In his efforts to prop up the idea that we are products of our environment, opportunities, and culture, he goes out of his way to discount individual traits and drives. I’m puzzled at Gladwell’s reasoning. Yes, Bill Gates was born with many favorable conditions that enabled him to build the Microsoft Empire, but Gates also had to exercise his individual drives, his entrepreneurship, his daily decisions, his networking abilities, his persistence, his competitiveness. In an interview, Gladwell openly admits that the book tries to debunk the American idea of the self-made man and rugged individualism. Keep in mind that Gladwell is Canadian, and he confesses several times that his Canadian mindset shapes his perspective.

As Americans, we celebrate individualism without apology, yet most of us realize our interdependence on each other’s successes. No one person created and built the space shuttle–a team of successful and talented people did. An individual’s success is often based on the accumulated success of armies of inspired and responsible people. Yet it often takes the individual–the pioneer–to challenge the status quo, to think out of the box, to dare do the impossible. Our country is built on the backs of pioneers. And some of those pioneers bubble up to the surface to represent and champion the thousands of less-well-known pioneers who thrive here.

Gladwell introduces the idea of society needing to create more access and equal opportunities so we can create multiple Bill Gates. The way I see it–America is busting at the seams with opportunities–even in a down economy. Everyday we see people who squander those incredible possibilities. And why? There are some exceptions, but largely because of their individual choices and their reluctance to take personal responsibility for their future. We cannot minimize personal responsibility and accountability.

Gladwell weaves in the idea of success and places that beside extreme examples–a man like Bill Gates. But he never defines success, and I’m not sure anyone can. And certainly no one can predict, based on their circumstances, what their future success will look like. For some it might mean being a billionaire, but for others it might mean living a life of influence, birthing an idea, owning a small business, or creating a happy family life. And being a person of faith, I believe we shouldn’t allow society or culture alone to define success.

I do know this: men like Bill Gates have made success possible for so many people–including myself. It’s that pioneering and entrepreneurial mindset that makes America so great. And with greatness comes tremendous responsibility.

America isn’t perfect, but what country or political system is? I’ve yet to find Her equal.

We may not all become like Gates, but everyone experiences some level of success here. The Gates of our society flood the culture with waves of hope and possible fortune, heaving everyone’s ship higher. Yes, some of us have yachts and some of us have dinghies, but we all benefit from the success of the best and the resourceful among us.

Do I aspire to own a yacht? No, but I could if I wanted it bad enough. This is America. However, I might just settle for a nice sailboat.

How about you? What’s your opinion on the Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers?

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2 Responses to Outliers – A Book Review

  1. susanb says:

    Ok – I love Outliers – and Gladwell. And I came away with a completely different perspective. I don’t at all believe Gladwell discounts personality and/or hard work. The point he makes is these are not enough; there is usually an outlier connected with success. As genius as Gates may be (and I believe he is and has a great work ethic), if he were not born during the particular point in Am history where computers were primed for growth, someone else would have hit it big in the industry just because of timing. This does not mean that Gates would not be successful, but if born 10 years later, I doubt he would be as successful as he is today. And I agree – success is subjective. I don’t define success as having a lot of money but most of the world does, and Gladwell sheds light on how things are really not in our “control” as much as we think they are. This lines up perfectly with my belief system. I’m not in control: God is. And He can ordain me to be born when I was, live where I do thus making him the ultimate outlier in all of their lives. So we came away with different opinions about the book. I still love it, love Gladwell, and love discussing books with other readers – regardless of their position. Sorry for the long comment . . . . Happy reading!!

    • Susan thanks for the comment. The book was fascinating to me. I enjoyed just about all the case studies like the Canadian hockey players, the Korean airliner crashes and the study on appalachian culture. What really changed my perspective on the book was when, in an interview, he blatantly admits –and this is the way it was put in the interview–the book attempts to debunk the self-made man and rugged individualism. Also, he suggests that the Canadian perspective and approach may be superior to the American approach. In some ways, that may be true. But to me he came across with a socialistic mindset and in some ways tried to minimize or marginalize the American path to success and the importance of individualism.

      Overall, his book sort of reminded me of Obama’s comment: “You didn’t build that.”

      I am definitely okay with his main premise–that it takes many factors and conditions to get us to success. A “village” if you will. But I just don’t think one should ever minimize individual character, effort and responsibility. This is what gives America it’s success. If he had balanced the success equation with individual effort and responsibility, I wouldn’t have been this critical. I just think it takes both–especially if schools, education, society, companies are to help open the doors of opportunity. Granted, he mentioned “hard work” maybe a handful of times, but that just minimized it too much for me.

      We have so many people here in America that bask in the conditions for success, but they don’t put forth the individual effort–like Gates, Jobs–and take advantage of those opportunities. On the positive side though, we have tons of other people who do take advantage and they will continue to make this nation flourish.

      As a personal example of what I’m talking about, I get involved with hiring for our company. One of the huge things we look for in resumes and interviews are not just the person’s education and credentials—but also their work ethic, their drive, leadership potential, their accomplishments, a firm handshake, good assertive skills, etc. So individual traits really are seen as the ingredients for a successful individual and company.

      Don’t worry though. I’m not a “throw-the-baby-out-with-bath-water” kind of guy. I will read more of Gladwell’s books. His books are fascinating. I’m thinking of tackling Blink next. Thanks again for your comment and I do understand your perspective.

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