About five or six years ago I decided to buy a paperback copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I’d heard lots of positive word of mouth about the book from a number of people. So I read it. And I loved it. I loved it so much that Gladwell’s book ended up being the best book I read that entire year. Therefore, after hearing an incredible amount of word of mouth about his more recent book Outliers: The Story of Success I quickly grabbed it after seeing it on the shelf at my public library. Once again, I was not disappointed. I loved Outliers.
In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes a look at the age-old question of why some people are incredibly successful. Why is that some people end up being superstar musicians, athletes, scientists or captains of industry ? While the temptation is to immediately credit some innate qualities such as intelligence or natural athleticism, and those contributing factors can play their part, the real reasons are far more complex and have very little to do with an individuals God-given abilities. By looking at lives of a number of desperate individuals such Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, Mozart, the members of the Beetles and others, Gladwell shows us that no successful person succeeds solely on his/her own.
According to Gladwell, the reasons for this success are as unrecognized as they are legion. For some hockey and soccer players, it simply comes down to what part of the year one was born. For wealthy industrialists and computer moguls, success is partially determined by historical factors, specifically a narrow window of time when one is young, brash and innovative enough to take advantage of the new technological developments unfolding around one. Cultural and agricultural factors, and even a legacy of prejudice can all play a beneficial role. For some, being blessed with at least one parent who can instill in a child the sense of social confidence needed to negotiate with individuals in positions of authority also helps. In short, we never make it just on our own.
I think my favorite part in Outliers was the story of Chris Langan, a man with a genius level IQ, who based on his astounding intellect should have been incredibly successful but wasn’t. As an unlucky product of his chaotic working-class home environment, he lacked the social sophistication to navigate the unwieldy bureaucracies endemic to higher education. This ultimately resulted in him being expelled from my up the street neighbor Reed College over a missing financial aid form, and then later forced to drop out of Montana State University over a minor scheduling issue. Instead of holding a tenured professorship at an elite university Langan now resides on a farm in rural Missouri. One wonders what might have been if a few breaks came his way.
While some have questioned Gladwell’s methodology, I believe his ability to take mountains of information distilled from interviews, reports and perhaps above all the life stories of an incredibly desperate pool of individuals and effectively weave it together into a readable and fascinating package far outweighs any reservations I might have regarding his methods or underlying assumptions. Much like many of the people he describes, with Outliers Gladwell succeeds. And succeeds well.