Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” is heartening and gratifying in a general sense, rather than incredibly or specifically edifying. Still, it’s very good, largely due to Gladwell being an accomplished teller of interesting tales rather than a purveyor of startling new theories backed with uniquely, creatively crunched, extensively and exhaustively gathered data. Sure, the hockey player birthday patterns are a bit of an eye-opener, but the snippets of data and trends are not what end up captivating in this book.

Coincidences of birth and being in the right place at the right time might give gifted people an initial and sometimes extraordinary headstart in professional sports, business and industry, arts and popular culture and other walks of life. However, Gladwell contends that those fortuitous elements alone don’t automatically create a Bill Gates, a Lennon and McCartney, a John D. Rockefeller, a Carlos Slim and so on.  A seeming outlier or someone representing by the dictionary definition “an extreme deviation from the mean” in their field of expertise can only become so through hard, hard, ongoing work – at least 10,000 hours of it. (Yes, Gladwell posits the pure embodiment of the old joke, “Pardon me sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”)

But it isn’t just “practice, practice, practice” that completes the formula. Where Gladwell’s book shines and inspires is in its tributes to the sheer, unalloyed passion of the so-called outliers for their so-called work. They were all having so much fun pursuing their love of computer programming or playing the guitar or whatever that the 10,000 plus hours to master their respective crafts probably just flew by, and all of a sudden they were Microsoft and the Beatles and so on.

Gladwell’s forays into cultural aspects that feed into failure or success seem like a distraction from his main thesis, however fascinating. (In fact, the discussion of cultural differences affecting how airplanes pilots do or do not communicate with each other – and the consequences – is riveting.) When Gladwell concludes the book with the heartfelt recounting of his own mother’s story of hard work capitalizing on the particular opportunities that came her family’s way, the real if not intended message of the book emerges. Anyone can be the outlier or the presumed deviation of the norm, by seizing and making the most of the opportunities presented him or her … and everyone can be an outlier if we all work as a society to ensure everyone has opportunities.

2 thoughts on “Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

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