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September 2014


Outliers: The Story of Success


by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, 2008).


What are the big take-aways?


On the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list or 42 weeks now, Outliers – written by the author of The Tipping Point and Blink – explores the bizarre logic behind what seems like the random success of extraordinary people.  Gladwell uses a lot of examples – from the Beatles to Bill Gates, and from top Canadian hockey players to elite Jewish lawyers – to demonstrate how frequently super-successful “outliers” owe as much or more to their circumstances as to their inherent abilities.


Why do I like it?


As Gladwell himself summarizes the book, “The lesson here is very simple.  But it is striking how often it is overlooked.  We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth” (page 268).  I like this book because it is an entertaining and surprising exposition that – in my view – “democratizes” achievement by offering evidence that almost anyone has the potential to be extraordinary in their own way if particular conditions are present: i.e. they are from a certain ethnicity at a specific time or place, or they are born at a particular time of year, or they are driven to (or they have to) devote the right amount of time and effort.


In my favorite chapter, entitled “The 10,000-Hour Rule,” Gladwell discusses studies showing that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play” (page 38).  It turns out there is a “magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours” of practice (page 39).  This is the type of experience that Bill Gates and the Beatles had accumulated before they became famous, Gladwell reveals, even though their respective successes appeared to be sudden, random and largely ascribed to pure genius.


In what situations would this be useful?


For leaders, the creative perspectives and provocative analyses of this book could be eye-opening.  For instance, Gladwell’s thesis could be richly applied to various public policies.  In a powerful final chapter on education reform, in which he analyzes school-year achievement gains versus summer vacation losses in wealthy kids and poor kids, Gladwell concludes that “the way in which education has been discussed in the United States is backwards….Schools work.  The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it” (page 259).


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


If you like his research and writing style, I’d recommend Gladwell’s other books; several years ago I read and enjoyed The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books, 2002).  A couple of other books about I like that contain what you might call “formulas for success” include Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library) and Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (also previously reviewed here).


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