Before I get started discussing this week’s entry into the Scott Drotar Literary Review, I want to first take a few moments to introduce you to the author of this week’s book, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, in addition to writing for the “Washington Post,” has written several bestsellers, like “Tipping Point” and “Blink,” in addition to “Outliers,” the book I will be reviewing today, and he has become quite famous as an author who brings complex, interesting, and insightful topics out of the hands of academics and presents it to the public in an easily understood way. With his wild hair and unique mannerisms, he looks like he belongs in a chemistry lab rather than on television discussing spaghetti sauce for the masses, but once you hear him speak or begin one of his books, you will quickly see how engaging he is in discussing his work. To give you a taste of his charismatic energy I have included a TED talk he gave several years ago about people and how we make decisions.
I am sure that now that you have seen his passion for his work, and his talent for breaking down concepts into parts that can be easily understood in a way that is also entertaining, you can see why his work is so popular. This is the exact same style and tone he portrays in his writing, which is what has made his books so incredibly successful.
Now that you have seen the brilliance and enthusiasm that Gladwell brings to his audience, let us take a look at one of his most influential works, “Outliers.” This book is an investigation into what makes people successful. What are the factors that separate the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Robert Oppenheimer’s from the thousands of other gifted individuals that work in the same fields? While we would like to think that things like work ethic, intelligence, and determination are the major contributing factors in being successful, because these are things that we can control to some degree, this text suggests that this may not be the whole story. Looking at things more closely uncovers the fact that there are often elements at work that are completely random and out of our control, like the month you were born, where you grew up, and your family’s financial status during your childhood, that have a huge impact on whether you are successful. Here is an example from “Outliers” that illustrates this concept wonderfully. I have greatly simplified it for brevity, but I think you will get his point.
A disproportionate number of Canadian-born hockey players were born in the first three months of their birth year. The reason for this is that the age group you play youth hockey in growing up is determined by your birth year only, so children born on January 1st will play with and against children born on December 31st of the same year (almost a full year apart). For young kids a lot of growth and development can occur over a full calendar year, which gives the children born in earlier months a distinct physical advantage. This translates into those players getting more ice time, playing on better teams with better coaches, and so on when they are young. This seemingly insignificant advantage early in life just multiplies over time, as the good players (born earlier) get more opportunities to improve, and as a result get better and better, which is a phenomenon Gladwell calls, “accumulated advantage.” By the time these children are all grown and balance out physically, the disparity in ice time and quality of coaching over their lives has already determined in large part who will be most successful.
This is a perfect example of how something as seemingly inconsequential as your birth month can have a profound impact on your success and the direction of your life. While this does depict the role that chance and societal norms can play in your life, it also touches on another major theme from this book, the “10,000 hour rule.”
The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill, the “10,000 hour rule,” is attributed to the researcher Anders Ericsson, but it has been fairly widely accepted by the academic community. This is the flipside of the coin so to speak, when compared to the idea that random chance determines a large part of how successful you are. Consider the “10,000 hour rule” the “nurture” to the “nature” of circumstance. Random occurrences and chance may play a large part in determining your success, but so does your willingness and desire to be successful. 10,000 hours is an extremely large amount of time to devote to any one task, and to help put it in perspective, it would take working 20 hours a week, every week, for 10 years in order to reach this point. There are many well-known examples to support this concept that Gladwell brings up. For example, Bill Gates (through a stroke of luck and random chance) had access as a young teenager to a computer system, and this was at a time when computers were luxury items for businesses and universities only. Over his teenage years, instead of cruising around town and talking to girls, Gates was busy geeking it up by experimenting and tinkering with computer coding. As a result, he easily amassed 10,000 hours of practice time using computers before even going to college, giving him a huge advantage over other individuals, and eventually leading to his enormous success. There are several other interesting examples of this concept in the book (one is about “The Beatles” that I found really interesting), but I will let you read them for yourself.
In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell tries to challenge the traditionally accepted notions about success, and make us think about and examine our lives and society. He definitely accomplishes his goal and presents several ideas for the reader to ponder as they think about being successful in their own life. This feat is even more impressive when you take into account the way that he can present this information to you in a way that is not only enlightening and educational, but also extremely enjoyable and entertaining. I guess this should come as no surprise though, since Gladwell reached the 10,000 hour level of mastery in writing many years ago when he worked for the “Washington Post” from 1987 to 1996. This is a fantastic book that provokes a lot of thought and a few laughs as well. I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a light, non-fiction read, and that is why “Outliers” gets a 5 out of 5 on the Roll Models Review Scale.