Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers- 4 stars, two smiley faces, and whatever other award a book should receive for being awesome.

In this book Mr. Gladwell takes a well accepted premise- that extremely successful people pulled themselves up by their bookstraps- and completely turns it on its head.

Here is one example from the book:

Public perception: Bill Gates was smarter, brighter, and harder working than anybody else and he is a truly self made man.

Reality: Bill Gates was lucky. First, he was likely the ONLY Jr. High private school student with access to a mainframe computer terminal, and then in High School he was within walking distance of one of the few Universities with a mainframe terminal. He figured out how to get free access after hours to unlimited programming time in high school while even graduate students were limited to only a few hours per week. By the time Bill Gates made it to the University, he likely had more practical programming experience than anybody else in the world. He was conveniently positioned to personally lead the dawning of the computer age.

The lesson: Most “self made” men require luck as well as hard work to be successful, Bill Gates himself admits he was lucky.

In the second section of the book, Mr. Gladwell looks at our cultural legacies and how our behaviors are affected by cultural traditions going back hundreds of years. Here is one of my favorite examples-

Public perception: Chinese students are naturally better at math than American students.

Reality affected by culture: Reality 1- Chinese people have grown rice on rice paddies for thousands of years. Caring for a rice paddie is a year round endeavor that requires intense focus and attention to detail. This tradition of hard work is ubiquitous in Chinese culture. Chinese proverbs encourage working 360 days a year to become rich, and school is practically year round. Reality 2- Counting in the Chinese language is far simpler than in English, allowing Chinese kids to count to 50 easily, while American kids of the same age can only count to 15.

These cultural histories provide Chinese people with a much better environment to learn math. If American students worked year round, and had a similar work ethic starting at a young age, there would likely be no difference between Chinese and American test scores.

Perhaps the part most interesting to me was the section about our American cultural biases. Americans came, for the most part, from an agrarian society where people worked hard during the growing season, and then largely had time off for months in the winter. How has this affected our culture?

These are common ideas that are culturally accepted in our society
– Summer vacation is important for kids.
– Kids shouldn’t have to do so much homework.
– Kids need plenty of recess during the school day.

Can we break free of these cultural norms? Do we want to? Identifying them is the first step, and then asking the hard questions- is it really best for our kids to have their summers off? Do we expect too much vacation? Why do we believe these things?

I can’t say enough good things about Outliers. This book is extremely well researched and thought provoking. It has changed the way I think about success, and it will likely change the way the world will forever view success, and that is a pretty amazing accomplisment by Mr. Gladwell. Outliers is an extremely fast read, so go grab a copy- its been #1 on the best sellers list for weeks for a reason.