Book Review: Outliers by Gladwell
Malcom Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2008). 309 pp. $27.99 Hardcover.
No matter the field of work or endeavor in which one finds him/herself, everyone wants to succeed. There is a glut of books at the local bookstore today that fill this “how to be successful” genre. But Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has a bit of a different take on success. It is not necessarily a “self-help” book. Nor does it follow the line that only the best and the brightest succeed. In fact, Gladwell’s book, sub-titled The Story of Success, inadvertently takes its cue from an unlikely source, the Bible. Gladwell quotes Matthew 25:29, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Don’t misunderstand, Gladwell is by no means trying to give a “biblical” portrait of what it means to be successful, rather, he has touched on a principle deeply embedded in God’s common grace poured out on all mankind. An outlier is one who is a statistical anomaly and therefore stands out from the rest as a result of certain factors. In other words, success does not come from the self-made man, according to Gladwell. Rather, success has more to do with opportunity, hard work, and legacy. Successful people are “invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot" (19).
Being in the right place at the right time, according to Gladwell, plays a bigger part in determining success than one might think at first blush. For example, Gladwell demonstrates that many of the most successful hockey players were born in the months of January, February and March. In Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1 (24). That means that players whose birthdays are closest to the cut-off date are the oldest in that particular category. The oldest in the category are the most physically mature which means that they are typically the better players. In the meritocracy of Canadian Hockey, the better players get noticed by scouts over the years and eventually get promoted to more competitive leagues that play year round. This means more hockey than the average hockey player with better competition than the average hockey player. So as a result of being born close to the cut-off date, these hockey players get more opportunity with better players and are forced to work harder. This is but one example of Gladwell’s point that opportunity is a better explanation of success than “genetic” talent. He points out that even with those that are naturally gifted, they must still get venues to exercise and hone that giftedness. This is where opportunity plays such a vital role.
A similar example is illustrated with Bill Gates, who is undoubtedly a bright guy. But more importantly, he was one of just a handful of people who received virtually unlimited access to the ASR-33 Teletype computer in 1968, which further honed his skills as a computer programmer and innovator. The Beatles played countless numbers of hours in Hamburg, Germany from 1960-1962, formidable years for a young aspiring band. In all these examples and more, Gladwell suggests what he calls the 10,000-Hour Rule which posits that such a number of hours of practice is needed in order to become excellent in any given field.
But opportunity and hard work are not the only necessary elements. Legacy also plays a big role in galvanizing the elements of success. This is not necessarily because where you come from, in and of itself, determines one’s level of success, but rather, as Gladwell points out, because each culture has its own “distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions” that need to be realized and in some cases addressed in order to meet the demands of success (221). Gladwell tells a fascinating story of a Korean airline company that finally realized that its cultural command structure, as well as aspects of the Korean language itself, contributed to numerous plane crashes that gave Korea a bad reputation in the airline industry. Learning the English language and receiving training from a different command structure remedied that situation.
Gladwell is an amazing communicator with an uncanny knack for observing and explaining otherwise mundane facts in a colorful and thought-provoking manner. As I noted above, this is not a self-help book. Gladwell is not necessarily telling the reader how to be successful as much as he is explaining the success of the outlier. And yet, these outliers, according to Gladwell, are not able to “look down from their lofty perch and say with all truthfulness, ‘I did this, all by myself’” (285). Why? Because they “are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all” (285). Gladwell’s words echo the words of a wisdom writer from long ago:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11, ESV).
Gladwell has hit on a rich vein of common grace. There is something out there bigger than ourselves that determines our destiny. We are not our own masters. And while those who reject the existence of God and yet recognize this principle in the world must attribute such activity to “time and chance,” the Christian has a name for the governor of “time and chance,” and His name is Jehovah.