Have you ever thought about this ? Why do some people become so successful ? Why do they achieve more than others ? You might think that they are the ones who were much focussed and did tonnes of hard work to get into the limelight. Well, that is true, but for some extent. Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist, reasons this in a different way. In his book, Outliers, Gladwell takes us on a fascinating journey through the lives of some of the most successful people in this world. Gladwell tries to find the answer to the question what makes successful people different from others ? After reading this brilliant book, I strongly believe, he found the answer.
“Success is not random,” Gladwell says. “It is much more influenced by the time and place we were born, what our parents did for living, what the circumstances of our upbringing and what the traditions we inherit from our forebears”. To strengthen his viewpoint, Gladwell introduces us to thoughtful case studies on certain incidents and success stories of some famous people ranging from athletes to multi millionaires. First part of the book, he discusses about the role of opportunities in bringing success and the second part, the cultural legacies.
Gladwell points out that we often give too much credit to innate talent, hard work and determination, which are in fact the key ingredients of success. But what he argues is the opportunities (like right date of birth, right place of birth, right situations in family) that only a few people can get, who seize them to pull their talent to professional level. For example, he refers to the case of Canadian Hockey players where the athletes whose date of birth nearer to cutoff date have higher chance to be selected in the national league. He points out the added advantage of their age, physical maturity and better coaching benefited them to sharpen their abilities.
Gladwell, however, never undermines the innate talent of successful people. He agrees that the great success comes with huge amount of practice to master the skills, at least a minimum of 10,000 hours as psychologists say. What he emphasizes is that this enormous amount of practice is possible only when an individual has enough financial stability, encouragement from parents and spare time. Gladwell explained this by citing the success stories of Bill Gates (Founder, Microsoft), Bill Joy (Founder, Sun Microsystems) and Beatles (Music band). Gates, for example, born in a financially stable family which gave him an opportunity to get best education and exposure to computers at an early age. He even had free access to them in Washington University, which luckily situated near his home. He was offered to work on softwares. All these gifted factors gave Bill Gates extra time for practice to master his skill on programming. Gladwell even highlights the importance of time of birth here. Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Steve Ballmer, Eric Schmidt and Steve Jobs all were born between 1953-1955, which places their young life around 1975, the beginnings of computer revolution.
Gladwell then explains that the kind of circumstances in our home – influences our chance to get success. He details this with the story of Chris Langan, an Outlier, who has 30% higher IQ than Einstein yet he is not as successful as Einstein. The bleak environment and poor financial status of Langan’s family has missed his opportunities. In an other case study of Jewish immigrants, we can see their offspring becoming successful professionals due to the kind of hard-working environment present in their families and perfect timingof birth.
Gladwell’s take on cultural legacy is the most highlighting part in the book. I personally found it way more interesting. In the chapter “The ethnic theory of plane crashes” Gladwell convinces us that our ability to succeed at what we do is bound up with where we’re from. Gladwell analyses a series of plane crashes by Korean pilots and deduces the reason for crashes as a mis-communication between Korean pilots and American ATC. Technically termed as Power distance index which is a cultural difference between the two ethnicities, influenced the fate of success of Korean pilots. Gladwell then moves on to explore the reason for high math solving ability of Asian people than Westerners. He discusses a couple of cultural legacies that made Asians good at Mathematics- (i) the difference between number systems in East-West and (ii) the rice cultivating culture in East which gave them hardworking capability than westerners.
Throughout the book, Gladwell tries to convince us that the success follows a predictable course. I’m pretty sure he successfully did it. Gladwell states “It is not the brightest who succeed. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities- and who had the strength and presence of mind to seize them. They were born at the right time with the right parents and the right ethnicity”
Outliers is stunning with the ideas it presents. Yet it raises a few questions. On what basis Gladwell defines someone as successful ? He picks up only celebrity personalities as the icon of success but there are people who are less famous, less earned yet successful. Also his theory of connecting the rice cultivation act to maths solving ability is quite difficult to be convinced. I wish Gladwell could have supplied more supporting studies on these. But the way he connected all the small dots to present his big idea is compelling throughout.
Gladwell is well known for explaining his complex ideas with simple case studies. Outliers is a landmark book from him. It’s thought-provoking, enlightening and one of the brilliant books I’ve read in recent times. I’m planning to read more books from this outlier, Malcolm Gladwell.
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