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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell -- A Book Review

Updated on July 22, 2011

With enough talent and intelligence, a little hard work will get you anything you want. The most successful people in the world are also the smartest, most highly skilled, and most hardworking. Right? Wrong. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell reveals that this conventional wisdom is anything but wise. Other factors go into making a person truly exceptional, into producing results that differ drastically from the norm. Although hard work and skill are definitely factors influencing success and failure, environment is as well. Nobody gets anywhere alone, without the right conditions for producing a particular outcome-- a fact often overlooked in the way we think about success.

Outliers uses a variety of examples, from how the mothers at Bill Gates' high school were instrumental to his ultimate success, to how the Beatles became great because of an unusual opportunity for constant practice, to how hockey players gain huge advantages merely from their birth months to show that talent and elbow grease aren't quite everything. Discussing seemingly unpredictable successes and failures, Gladwell points out extenuating circumstances that help explain their outcomes and suggests that people would be a lot more successful if they acknowledged that some aspects of success may be found in our environment and culture rather than our own individual characteristics.

Although some have taken issue with this idea as dismissive of human potential, Gladwell should not be interpreted as devaluing intelligence. After all, many boys attended the same private high school as Bill Gates and did not become founders of computer corporations. Instead, Gladwell suggests that we take the myth that anyone can "pull himself up by his bootstraps" with a grain of salt. A solidly middle class computer programmer should not necessarily beat herself up over the fact that she's not Bill Gates-- She might not have had the opportunities. And, by acknowledging that opportunities play a huge and often subtle role in determining outcomes, we can work to provide more and better chances for others.

Outliers is an interesting read, challenging conventional wisdom in much the same way as books like Freakonomics. While its thesis may seem a little obvious, the examples to support it often uncover something little known or unexpected. Perhaps most importantly, it helps remind us that "No man is an island," and we are perhaps a lot more interconnected with and dependent upon the world and each other than we initially realize.


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