BY Espie Angelica A. De Leon
Light, breezy, delightful, like a walk in the park. These best describe the experience of reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” This is not to say however, that the book is not deep, insightful, and provocative. Because definitely, it is.
“Outliers” not only tackles the oft-mentioned complex path toward success; it probes deeply into its secrets, deftly entering territories where others who have similarly written about successful people and organizations do not normally set foot on. The perennial question that the book tries to answer is, ‘why do some people succeed far more than others?’
“Outliers” tells us that a person with a genius IQ will not necessarily be more successful than somebody with a superior or above average IQ. In the chapter “The Trouble with Geniuses Part 1,” the author introduces the reader to Christopher Langan, a man with an IQ of 195 (higher than Einstein’s) and considered by many as the smartest man in America. Yet, Langan hasn’t had a single major career achievement. Why is that?
It also says that a person born in the mid-50s, say ‘54 or ‘55, the year when Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Bill Joy were born, as well as those born in 1935 – had great chances at success, owing to what history has in store for them by the time they come of age around 20 years later. How come?
It also affirms that ethnicity had a role in Korean Air Lines’ string of airplane crashes from 1988-1998. Eh? And that Asians’ excellence in Math may be traced to rice paddies. Huh?
According to the book, this is because analytical intelligence, education, and hard work are not the only ingredients for success. Intelligence and education are just the beginning, or seemingly so. And hard work is merely one of the accessories to success.
One’s parentage and cultural legacy, birthdate, demography, practical intelligence, opportunities (which may have come out of sheer luck and not necessarily because the person to whom opportunity presented itself willingly worked for it), and luck are equally important success ingredients as well.
One such opportunity, says Gladwell, is that which allows the person to engage in his craft or hobby for long stretches of time, giving him endless practice sessions that reach 10,000 hours. By the 10,000th hour, he would have honed his craft into perfection, perfect enough for him to attain success and even fame.
He cites the Beatles as an example. By sheer chance (also an example of how luck plays a role in success), the band got invited to play at a strip club in Hamburg, Germany. There, they played for an average eight hours seven days a week from 1960-1962. The rigors of performing gave them the necessary stamina and discipline. To sustain their performances and their audience’s interest, they also had to widen their repertoire and learn more songs of other musical genres, not just rock and roll. By the time they got their chance at international success in 1964, the group had already logged in numerous hours of practice and preparation.
Gladwell generally presents his case intelligently and convincingly, engaging his reader into deep thought and analysis himself. And he accompanies his points with examples, details, data and research by other experts. Obviously, the author did not just jump into his findings and present these out of sheer fancy. He’s clearly got basis.
He also makes it easier for his readers to follow his trail of thought. At the opening of every chapter, Gladwell cites an example to make his point clear. Later, he launches into another example, to make a comparison. Then he provides more examples. And then he goes back to his original example to emphasize his case. In that way, he ensures his reader is not lost.
Indeed, not only does the reader not get lost in the discussion; he gets to enjoy the discussion as well.
Which is not to say that everything the book says will be met by a thumbs up from every reader. Not all the ideas Gladwell presents in the book are novel, to start with.
His discussion on opportunities, or some aspects of it, isn’t really a revelation. It’s been mentioned again and again – that at some point in the past, Lady Luck smiled and gave one particular individual an opportunity which eventually launched him into the path toward success.
Or that an nurturing, stimulating environment – such as a set of supportive parents who teach their child to ask questions at the doctor’s clinic, or encourage him to accept an invitation to deliver a lecture before the New York Mineralogical Club (as in the case of then 12-year-old J. Robert Oppenheimer who later headed the US project to develop a nuclear bomb in World War II ) – also plays a key role.
Or that long hours of practice leads to excellence. These are hackneyed ideas.
Yet, Gladwell writes about them in a way that keeps the reader hooked still. The fact that he provides examples of real and famous people and of little-known details from their past helps explain this. The concept of the 10,000 hours also helps make the correlation between practice and excellence seem shiningly new.
Another thing I noticed is Gladwell’s penchant for citing two specific professions in the family trees that he provided in the chapter “The Three Lessons of Joe Flom.” The purpose for the family trees was to show that children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants working in the garments industry in the US in the 1800s grew up to be successful. The two professions he specified were doctors and lawyers.
Success is not limited to merely two professions. Surely, not all of them were in the legal and medical fields. I wish Gladwell cited other professions of the Jewish immigrants’ progeny. He could have included businessmen, teachers, professors, scientists, artists, engineers, writers as well. To start with, not all doctors and lawyers are truly successful. In fact, I think he could have done better had he provided a definition of success for his readers.
Except for these ideas, the rest in the book are revelations indeed. “Outliers” is an eye-opener and page turner rolled into one. The reader absorbs it like a sponge, every once in a while discovering a nugget of information he hadn’t realized, read or heard about before, pushing him to turn even more pages, and fast until he has taken in everything the author has to say.
And what Gladwell has to say in “Outliers” is interesting, revealing, stimulating, shocking even. Not only is it educational and enjoyable; it makes for an exhilarating conversation piece.
September 2017 Health and Lifestyle