Outliers (Gladwell)

Outliers: The Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell, 2008
Little, Brown & Company
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316017923

Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers"—the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful.

He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing.

Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—September 3, 1963
Where—Fareham, Hampshire, England, U.K.
• Raised—Elmira, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.A., University of Toronto
Currently—New York, New York, USA

Malcolm T. Gladwell is an English-Canadian journalist, bestselling author, and speaker. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He has written five books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009), and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). The first four books were on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Gladwell's books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology, and social psychology. Gladwell was appointed to the Order of Canada 1n 2011.

Early life
Gladwell was born in Fareham, Hampshire, England. His mother is Joyce (Nation) Gladwell, a Jamaican-born psychotherapist. His father, Graham Gladwell, is a British mathematics professor. Gladwell has said that his mother is his role model as a writer. When he was six, his family moved to Elmira, Ontario, Canada.

Gladwell's father noted that Malcolm was an unusually single-minded and ambitious boy. When Malcolm was 11, his father allowed him to wander around the offices at his university, which stoked the boy's interest in reading and libraries. During his high school years, Gladwell was an outstanding middle-distance runner and won the 1,500 meter title at the 1978 Ontario High School 14-year-old championships in Kingston, Ontario. In the spring of 1982, Gladwell interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of Toronto's Trinity College in 1984.

Gladwell's grades were not good enough for graduate school (as Gladwell puts it, "college was not an... intellectually fruitful time for me"), so he decided to go into advertising. After being rejected by every advertising agency he applied to, he accepted a journalism position at The American Spectator and moved to Indiana. He subsequently wrote for Insight on the News, a conservative magazine owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

In 1987, Gladwell began covering business and science for the Washington Post, where he worked until 1996. In a personal elucidation of the 10,000 hour rule he popularized in Outliers, Gladwell notes, "I was a basket case at the beginning, and I felt like an expert at the end. It took 10 years—exactly that long."

When Gladwell started at The New Yorker in 1996 he wanted to "mine current academic research for insights, theories, direction, or inspiration." His first assignment was to write a piece about fashion. Instead of writing about high-class fashion, Gladwell opted to write a piece about a man who manufactured T-shirts, saying was much more interesting to write a piece about someone who made a T-shirt for $8 than it was to write about a dress that costs $100,000. I mean, you or I could make a dress for $100,000, but to make a T-shirt for $8 – that's much tougher.

Gladwell gained popularity with two New Yorker articles, both written in 1996: "The Tipping Point" and "The Coolhunt." These two pieces would become the basis for Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point, for which he received a $1 million advance. He continues to write for The New Yorker and also serves as a contributing editor for Grantland, a sports journalism website founded by ESPN's Bill Simmons.

When asked for the process behind his writing, Gladwell has said...

I have two parallel things I'm interested in. One is I'm interested in collecting interesting stories, and the other is I'm interested in collecting interesting research. What I'm looking for is cases where they overlap.

The title for his first book, The Tipping Point (2000), came from the phrase "tipping point"—the moment in an disease epidemic when the virus reaches critical mass and begins to spread at a much higher rate.

Gladwell published Blink (2005), a book explaining how the human subconscious interprets events or cues and how past experiences can lead people to make informed decisions very rapidly.

Gladwell's third book, Outliers (2008) examines the way a person's environment, in conjunction with personal drive and motivation, affects his or her possibility and opportunity for success.

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009) bundles together Gladwell's favorite articles from The New Yorker since he joined the magazine as a staff writer in 1996. The stories share a common idea, namely, the world as seen through the eyes of others, even if that other happens to be a dog.

David and Goliath (2013) explores the struggle of underdogs versus favorites. The book is partially inspired by a 2009 article Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker, "How David Beats Goliath."

The Tipping Point and Blink became international bestsellers, each selling over two million copies in the US.

David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "In the vast world of nonfiction writing, Malcolm Gladwell is as close to a singular talent as exists today" and that Outliers "leaves you mulling over its inventive theories for days afterward." Ian Sample of The Guardian (UK) also wrote of Outliers that when brought together, "the pieces form a dazzling record of Gladwell's art. There is depth to his research and clarity in his arguments, but it is the breadth of subjects he applies himself to that is truly impressive."

Criticism of Gladwell tends to focus on the fact that he is a journalist and not a scientist, and as a result his work is prone to oversimplification. The New Republic called the final chapter of Outliers, "impervious to all forms of critical thinking" and said that Gladwell believes "a perfect anecdote proves a fatuous rule."

Gladwell has also been criticized for his emphasis on anecdotal evidence over research to support his conclusions. Steven Pinker, even while praising Gladwell's attractive writing style and content, sums up Gladwell as "a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning." Pinker accuses him of using "cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies" in Outliers.

Despite these criticisms Gladwell commands hefty speaking fees: $80,000 for one speech, according to a 2008 New York magazine article although some speeches he makes for free. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/02/2013.)

Book Reviews 
In Outliers, Gladwell (The Tipping Point) once again proves masterful in a genre he essentially pioneered—the book that illuminates secret patterns behind everyday phenomena. His gift for spotting an intriguing mystery, luring the reader in, then gradually revealing his lessons in lucid prose, is on vivid display. Outliers begins with a provocative look at why certain five-year-old boys enjoy an advantage in ice hockey, and how these advantages accumulate over time. We learn what Bill Gates, the Beatles and Mozart had in common: along with talent and ambition, each enjoyed an unusual opportunity to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers. A detailed investigation of the unique culture and skills of Eastern European Jewish immigrants persuasively explains their rise in 20th-century New York, first in the garment trade and then in the legal profession. Through case studies ranging from Canadian junior hockey champions to the robber barons of the Gilded Age, from Asian math whizzes to software entrepreneurs to the rise of his own family in Jamaica, Gladwell tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account for success—and how historical legacies can hold others back despite ample individual gifts. Even as we know how many of these stories end, Gladwell restores the suspense and serendipity to these narratives that make them fresh and surprising.

One hazard of this genre is glibness. In seeking to understand why Asian children score higher on math tests, Gladwell explores the persistence andpainstaking labor required to cultivate rice as it has been done in East Asia for thousands of years; though fascinating in its details, the study does not prove that a rice-growing heritage explains math prowess, as Gladwell asserts. Another pitfall is the urge to state the obvious: "No one," Gladwell concludes in a chapter comparing a high-IQ failure named Chris Langan with the brilliantly successful J. Robert Oppenheimer, "not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone." But who in this day and age believes that a high intelligence quotient in itself promises success? In structuring his book against that assumption, Gladwell has set up a decidedly flimsy straw man.

In the end it is the seemingly airtight nature of Gladwell's arguments that works against him. His conclusions are built almost exclusively on the findings of others—sociologists, psychologists, economists, historians—yet he rarely delves into the methodology behind those studies. And he is free to cherry-pick those cases that best illustrate his points; one is always left wondering about the data he evaluated and rejected because it did not support his argument, or perhaps contradicted it altogether. Real life is seldom as neat as it appears in a Malcolm Gladwell book. —Leslie T. Chang
Publishers Weekly

Let's cut to the chase and say that all libraries should buy this book, if only because people will be asking for it. Gladwell, New Yorker staff writer, TEDTalks (Technology, Entertainment, Design) personality, and author of the best sellers The Tipping Point and Blink, has, well, reached a tipping point in the consciousness of observers of popular culture. Following a format similar to his previous books, Gladwell gloms onto an apparent phenomenon—in this case people who seem significantly different from other people, whether for good or for ill—and offers what we're all apparently supposed to believe are startlingly logical explanations for why they stand out. Gladwell's reasons have largely to do with things like where they come from and what month they were born in. It's all very readable, but not particularly surprising. No matter, libraries will need to acquire it.
Library Journal

There is a logic behind why some people become successful, and it has more to do with legacy and opportunity than high IQ. In his latest book, New Yorker contributor Gladwell (Blink, 2005, etc.) casts his inquisitive eye on those who have risen meteorically to the top of their fields, analyzing developmental patterns and searching for a common thread. The author asserts that there is no such thing as a self-made man, that "the true origins of high achievement" lie instead in the circumstances and influences of one's upbringing, combined with excellent timing. The Beatles had Hamburg in 1960-62; Bill Gates had access to an ASR-33 Teletype in 1968. Both put in thousands of hours—Gladwell posits that 10,000 is the magic number—on their craft at a young age, resulting in an above-average head start. The author makes sure to note that to begin with, these individuals possessed once-in-a-generation talent in their fields. He simply makes the point that both encountered the kind of "right place at the right time" opportunity that allowed them to capitalize on their talent, a delineation that often separates moderate from extraordinary success. This is also why Asians excel at mathematics—their culture demands it. If other countries schooled their children as rigorously, the author argues, scores would even out. Gladwell also looks at "demographic luck," the effect of one's birth date. He demonstrates how being born in the decades of the 1830s or 1930s proved an enormous advantage for any future entrepreneur, as both saw economic booms and demographic troughs, meaning that class sizes were small, teachers were over-qualified, universities were looking to enroll and companies were looking for employees. In short, possibility comes "from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with." This theme appears throughout the varied anecdotes, but is it groundbreaking information? At times it seems an exercise in repackaged carpe diem, especially from a mind as attuned as Gladwell's. Nonetheless, the author's lively storytelling and infectious enthusiasm make it an engaging, perhaps even inspiring, read. Sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Outliers:

1. Malcolm Gladwell is interested in what makes some people more successful than others. Overall, how would you describe his thesis, or central premise? Do you agree or disagree with his ideas?

2. What does Gladwell mean by the term "outlier"?

3. Why does Gladwell insist that IQ is not the determining factor in one's ability to achieve success? What does he mean when he suggests that IQ reaches a point of diminishing returns after reaching 130?

4. Gladwell draws upon Robert Sternberg's idea of "practical intelligence." What is practical intelligence, and how does it differ from IQ?

5. According to Gladwell, what is the reason that Asians excell at mathematics? Discuss the cultural and educational differences that he points to as explanation.

6. Why does Gladwell feel there is no such thing as a self-made person. Do you agree? Can you name people who overcame great odds—circumstances not in their favor—to attain success? What about those people that Gladwell offers in support of his argument (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or the Beatles, among others)? Do you agree with his assessment that much depends on timing?

7. Do Gladwell's many anecdotes prove his hypothesis? Or do his stories exemplify his ideas? Is there a difference...if so, what? Some critics suggest that Gladwell cherry-picks his facts in order to support his premise. Is that a valid observation or not?

8. Is Gladwell suggesting that success is a matter of luck, the roll of the die? If so—if success depends on timing, birth, and opportunities—then do innate qualities (ambition or raw talent) have any role to play?

9. What personal experiences—people and incidents in your own life—can you think of that support or challenge Gladwell's ideas?

10. What did you find most surprising, humorous or thought-provoking in Gladwell's book? Any "ah-ha!" moments? Any-thing strike you as dubious? Have you come away thinking differently than before? What, if anything, do you feel you've learned?

11. Gladwell gives differing definitions of intelligence. Yet his definition of success is singular—"worldy" success in terms of of wealth, power, and fame. Are there also differing definitions of success that Gladwell doesn't consider? If so, what are they, and what does it take to achieve those versions of success?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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