A review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers
Malcolm Gladwell begins his informative and entertaining analysis of Outliers—The Story of Success with a definition of ‘outliers,’ a descriptor of recent popularity used to identify remarkable individuals among us who have reached extraordinary heights in our culture. Gladwell defines an outlier as: “1: something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body, and 2: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample”.
Some outliers who might come to mind are Bill Gates, Beethoven, Yo-Yo Ma, Marie Curie, and Einstein. To most of us ‘ordinary’ folk, an outlier is a genius, a brilliant and probably ambitious person who stands apart and whose intellect or particular talents are far beyond the norm and even beyond our understanding. We stand in awe of such individuals, knowing we could never approach their levels of accomplishment because we simply don’t have special abilities like theirs.
If this is what you believe, read Gladwell’s enlightening book and be prepared to be proven wrong. Also be prepared to gain some insight into underlying causes of gender, racial, ethnic and class prejudice and possible solutions to achieving a society where greater social and economic equality among all groups can be achieved.
Although Gladwell names his book Outliers and defines the word at the outset, he ultimately concludes there is no such kind of person. Rather, given a level of intellect and/or talent and the right set of circumstances, which can include the time or era, the culture, the family into which a person is born and who that person meets along the way—which phenomena Gladwell calls ‘demographic luck’—almost anyone can achieve the kind of success we thought was restricted to the extraordinary in our midst.
Gladwell’s examples of achievers, the studies he uncovers, and his acute analysis of the subjects he treats across time and disciplines combine to convince us that opportunity plays a huge role in our lives. Near the end of Outliers, Gladwell notes that “The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.” (p. 137)
Here is what I learned from Gladwell…
• The crash history of an airline can result not only from mechanical failures, but from the ways in which the culture of the country of origin of the airline, and its pilots and their co-pilots or assistants, dictate how subordinates communicate with and relate to their superiors. (Gladwell labels this phenomenon the ‘ethnic theory of plane crashes’). If the culture demands subordinates to be deferential, they are likely not to tell their captain what to do or not do but will instead speak respectfully, in code, which may not be of any use as the plane is about to crash into a mountainside. Surprisingly, a change in the dynamics of those interactional rules can significantly diminish the number of accidents—though such change does require substantial training and perseverance.
• When you discover that certain boys or girls on their respective soccer or hockey teams perform better than others, don’t dismiss as inept or slow those who are the poor performers. It may turn out that the more skilled players were born at the beginning of the year and thus older, and the less skilled players were born later in the year and are therefore younger and have not yet developed physically. It could be a mistake with lasting negative repercussions to pay more attention to the older kids and ignore the younger ones who, given time and assistance, can be just as good later on.
• Musicians become accomplished and popular performers because they practice, practice, and practice, and not always because they are ‘naturals’ with greater talent than the ones who do not rise to the top of their craft and garner awards and applause. The Beatles could well be a prime example of this principle—that success in the field of music requires thousands of hours of practice. Gladwell calls it the “10,000-hour rule.” (See Chapter Two.)
When the Beatles were on tour early in their career before becoming a sensation, they did the rounds of Hamburg nightclubs five times between 1960 and 1962, performing almost non-stop. According to Gladwell’s calculations, the band had performed live about 1,200 times before their first ‘burst of success’ in 1964. In the process they discovered new ways to play together. Had this unexpected opportunity not arisen at a time when they were green and eager, we might never have known the Beatles and witnessed their enormous influence!
• Behind the success of Joe Flom who became the managing partner of Skadden Arps (and is its last living named partner) is the story of a depression-era child of ’desperately poor’ Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Although Flom had intelligence, personality and serious ambition, Gladwell argues that Flom, like his classmate Alexander Bickel, flourished because he was Jewish in a time when expressing anti-semitism was not only common but acceptable.
Joe Flom was the educational product of an elite private high school and Harvard because he took their entrance exams and got accepted. Yet when Flom interviewed in the late 1940s with a top old-line ‘white-shoe’ Manhattan firm interested only in lawyers who were Nordic, had the ‘right’ social background and family connections, and had pleasing personalities (p. 123), he was rejected. Undeterred, he joined with two other similarly rejected Jewish lawyers to establish a firm that ultimately specialized in hostile takeovers. As it turned out, a tremendous need developed for such legal representation and those ‘white-shoe’ firms didn’t want to dirty their hands or get involved in litigation; consequently, Skadden Arps filled that gap, in part with referrals from the Wall Street firms that had once rejected them, and went on to become one of the world’s largest and most successful firms.
• Gladwell also illustrates the importance of ‘meaningful’ work in relation to the ’set of immigrant skills’ possessed by Jews who came to this country through Ellis Island. Unlike many other Eastern European immigrants who were peasants and tenant farmers from the countryside, Jews had settled in cities because they were prohibited from owning land. In that environment, they practiced various trades, often working with cloth and fabrics or ‘piece goods’. These skills proved quite useful to the Jewish population in their new home as men and women became tailors and dressmakers. Many of these merchants also figured out how to convince wholesalers to ‘cut out the middleman’ and sell materials directly to them, and then began an expansion of their businesses, the hiring of workers, and the mass production of their goods—often for sale to the moneyed classes. We find here another example of the merging of skills, good timing, and encouragement from an unlikely source: discrimination that forced these outcasts to find other paths to success.
• Asian students often do better on standardized tests than whites and other ethnic groups, especially in math. You will be surprised to learn that the Asian ‘world view’ about the importance of study and work developed from the cultivation of the rice paddy and how hard the people who tend it must work—on that task and out-of-season in order to maintain their households. The harder a rice field is worked, the more it yields, and so the Chinese discovered their labor was meaningful, in much the same way that the Jewish immigrant garment workers found a relationship between effort and reward. This is also one of the reasons students in China (and some other countries) attend school all year with no long summer breaks during which ground can be lost in the learning process.
• Some studies, through standardized test scores, show that children from poor communities often do not succeed in school to the same degree as children who live in predominantly middle and upper-income neighborhoods, leading us to assume that children from those poor communities, where racial and ethnic minorities are often segregated, are not as intelligent or hard-working as their better-off counterparts. When we accept these studies and assumptions without question, unfair and costly consequences occur.
Through his keen analysis and a different set of data, Gladwell jolts us into recognition—that as a society, we have unwittingly created—or at least allowed—class barriers that prevent bright, motivated children from performing well in school. He describes one study which measured, in socio-economic groupings of low, middle and high, the progress of first through fifth graders by their CAT reading scores. Meaningful yet still modest differences existed among the first-graders, with those from wealthier families scoring higher, but that ‘achievement gap’ had doubled by the time the students reached fifth grade. It turned out that the scores from tests taken at the start of the school year reflected a larger gap across socio-economic class lines than when testing is done in June.
These results show that kids from poor families, when given the same opportunities to learn as their richer peers during the school year, scored very close to the students from higher income communities. In fact, a comparison of scores from first through fifth grades tells us that the poor kids ‘out-learned’ the wealthiest kids, having increased their scores by more points over the five years of testing. (p. 257). So what happened during the summer to cause the test scores of the poorer students to drop significantly?
The higher-income students were encouraged by their families to stay engaged in reading and in the learning process. Given greater financial resources and privileges, those students tended to be enrolled in summer camps and/or a variety of special classes and programs and to visit museums and other cultural venues. The students with very limited means mostly played outside with friends and watched television. Knowing how these kids from different economic strata spent their summers, we should not be surprised that the more privileged ones improved their reading and math skills over the summer and the other group of students fell behind. As Gladwell concludes: “Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” (p. 258.)
Gladwell offers many more unusual examples of the important role opportunity plays in a successful life, and he does so in a provocative yet entertaining manner. While you are smiling, the light bulb flashes in your mind’s eye—and that in itself is a delightful experience. Go get your copy of Outliers NOW! ■