Book Review: Outliers

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Outliers is worth your time to read. It’s entertaining, challenges the status quo, and makes you think about the impact environment and culture have on success.

Summary

Outliers challenges the traditional status quo that outliers, those truly dominant in their field, succeed based off intelligence, hard work, and determination alone. Outliers attempts to show that culture, environment, and opportunities — factors largely out of your control — are as or more important for success than IQ and innate ability.

Outliers is an extremely easy to read book with entertaining examples from various disciplines and cultures. It makes you rethink the traditional notion that success is the result of individual drive and achievement by putting the focus on the world around you.

Ultimately, the main thesis is weak and breaks down. Outliers are extremely hard working. As much as environment and culture play a role, the common denominator for success is passion and drive. Certainly environment and culture play a large part in the success of the elite, but internal passion and drive remain key.

Overall: 3/5
Content: 2/5
Readability: 4/5

Thesis

There is something profoundly wrong with the way we look at success. We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.

Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them

In Outliers, Gladwell challenges conventional wisdom (at least in America) which tells us the road to success is paved with intelligence, grit, and determination.

His goal is to convince you that environment, culture, and opportunities you were “given” (quotes mine — I’ll explain later) determine how successful you will be — at least as much if not more so than hard work and discipline. The book is divided into two parts — Opportunity (environment) and Legacy (culture) with chapter after chapter of stories to reinforce each part.

Key Points

Opportunity

We all have opportunities. Successful people recognize and take advantage of them.

Environment matters

The place you live, the people you spend time with, and the broader culture you live in are critical to success. Surround yourself with an environment for success.

Hard work

It takes 10,000 hours to truly master a craft. Plan well and persevere thru tough times.

Passion

Do what you love. Passion and meaning drive success.

Values

Realize the impact culture and enviornment have on your values. Culture contributes to your values. Family contributes you values. Some values are good, others not. Understand how your culture is helping / hurting you.

Children

Invest in your children. Parent them. Challenge them. Turn them into confident, self-advocates by providing an environment for success early in life. It’s critical to their long term success.

The Good

The stories in the book are the main highlight. Gladwell is an entertaining story teller and journalist. He backs up his thesis with a wide range of examples ranging from educational studies of gifted children, individuals like Bill Joy and Bill Gates, groups like The Beatles, and entire cultures like the Chinese.

Each story highlighs the fact that while all are talented and hard working, each benefited form their environment and culture.

Case in point: Bill Gates. Bill Gates is extremely smart, but had he been born in South America, would he have had access to the world leading computer system at the University of Washington? Had he been born in 1930, would he have been in his prime during the PC revolution?

Gladwell’s point: while Bill Gates was truly a hard working, gifted genius, his environment (being born in 1955) and culture (rich kid from Washington) ultimately provided him with the opportunity that turned him into an Outlier.

Of course, Gladwell doesn’t attribute Outliers’ success solely to environment and culture. He recognizes that the Outliers work extremely hard — to the point their entire life is consumed with their work. Gladwell claims it takes 10,000 hours in your chosen field to mastery. I’m guessing most Outliers are well beyond that.

Gladwell is a great story teller. He’s not scientific, but weaves to together a cohesive narrative to prove his points. His style is extremely readable and entertaining. The stories are wide ranging and cover a variety of different cultures and demographics. Examples include multiple stories from American immigrants, tech titans Bill Gates and Bill Joy, true geniuses with 200+ IQs, a formal study (which concluded that IQ ultimately has little bearing on success), and other cultures like Korean and Chinese.

A key mark of a great book is that it makes you think. Outliers makes you think and want to challenge the status quo. Why are kids hockey teams based on school year while early success depends on size and speed? Why not group kids by size or speed — regardless of year? Are American cultural values really helping America succeed or preventing America from succeeding?

An aside..

For me, Outliers opened eyes to the weak American educational system.

In the final few chapters, Gladwell explains how detrimental “summer breaks” are for American children and how soft our culture is when compared with the Chinese. For example, do you know that American children give up much faster (say 5 min) than Chinese (say 20 min) when challenged? That American children look for the answer key while Chinese students apply reason with determination to solve the problem? Facts like this start to shed light on how crucial cultural values are to success.

For the record, I am not a fan of American education. I think it’s soft. I do not blame teachers — they remain extremely under respected (thus under paid) in American culture. The cultural value Americans place on education and respect teachers are given are both critically low. America has out of date curriculum (my middle school children have “typing”, not computer science), summer breaks, grade inflation, and low expectations.

And it’s impacting results:

How do U.S. students compare with their peers around the world? Recently released data from international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations.

I feel American culture is undisciplined and soft — lulled into apathy from not being challenged. When it comes to education, schools are treated like day care. Teachers are expected to teach life skills and parent kids with constant fear of parent backlash. The culture seems to value Facebook and Kanye West more than hard work and knowledge.

So while Outliers isn’t earth shattering (does anyone really think that environment or culture doesn’t matter that much to success?), it does open your eyes. It makes you think about the environment you are in. If you have kids, you will think about the environment you’re providing and how being involved in their lives is so very important.

The Bad

Bad is a strong word. Overall, Outliers is a good book. But I personally thought the main thesis was weak and broke down quick.

First of all, does anyone honestly believe that environment and culture don’t contribute to success? I felt that Gladwell was trying to setup a false argument against conventional wisdom, proving conventional wisdom, thus making you feel confident that you knew the answer all along.

Outliers doesn’t discount hard work and discipline, but it does challenge its importance. Yet in every example of an outlier you see hard work, passion, discipline, and innate abilities that Gladwell discounts. I would flip the argument on its head. That success comes more from passion than anything, but recognize that environment and culture play a bigger role than you think. If you want something bad enough, you’ll overcome culture and environment.

Gladwell introduces the “10,000 hour rule” — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a skill. That type of dedication is certainly influenced by culture and environment, but it’s in the hands of the individual to actually do it. All of the examples have one thing in common: passion. Outliers are driven. The thesis could have been:

Success is truly achieved by mixing passion and hard work with environment and culture

Outliers talks at length about opportunities. That outliers are given more opportunities. It’s probably true — outliers were given opportunities that made them successful. But opportunities need to be taken, which takes risk, which is driven by character. So while outliers had opportunities, the decisions to take them were driven from within.

The book gives a passing nod to the impact relationships have to success. Relationships are critical to success, yet received barely any attention in the book. Relationships and people really matter.

Main thesis aside, all examples of outliers were men. It would have been great to see examples of women.

I thought the book missed a glaring opportunity to deliver a call to action. The book sort of just ended. While there is no specific formula for success, it could have challenged the reader to apply the lessons learned.

Conclusion

Outliers is worth your time to read. It’s entertaining, challenges the status quo, and makes you think. It opens your eyes to the world around you, making you realize the impact enviroment and culture have on success.

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