Trevor's Reviews > Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Aug 29, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: behavioural-economics, psychology, social-theory

I know, you don’t think you have the time and there are other and more important books to read at the moment, but be warned, you do need to read this book.

There are a number of ways I can tell a book will be good; one of those ways is if Graham has recommended it to me (how am I going to cope without our lunches together, mate?). And there is basically one way for me to I know that I’ve really enjoyed a book, and that is if I keep telling people about it over and over again. Well, not since Predictably Irrational (also recommended to me by Graham) have I gone on and on about a book to people. First to Ruth over lunch, then to mum on the phone, and then the kids after they had just gotten out of bed in the early hours of the afternoon – my poor children, I’ve told them virtually the entire book.

Now it is your turn.

As a culture we tend to believe that people who are successful (people like Mozart, Bill Gates, The Beatles) all are ‘self-made-men’ and have risen to the summit of achievement on the basis of some incredibly special power they have and that we do not. It is a comforting thought, in some ways. If we have not done as well we are hardly to blame, because we just didn’t have that certain something. We don’t have the thing that sets them people apart from the crowd. And in this cult of celebrity we even get a chance to live vicariously in the reflection of their glory. Perhaps we can never all be Lady Di, (at least, not in public) but we can all attempt suicide with a pate knife and get into colonic irrigation. John Safran talks somewhere about a guy he knows saying to him that the only reason John made it and he didn’t was because John was Jewish. John then talks about how much hard work he had to put in to becoming successful, none of which relied on the mythical leg up he would have gotten from some secret Jewish conspiracy.

This book isn’t about Lady Di, but it is about a series of biographies of people who have become incredibly successful. The biographies are generally told twice. The first time in a way that confirms all our prejudices about self made men and then in a way that makes sense of the success in ways we may find much more uncomfortable. I really struggled with this book – I loved every minute of it, but I still felt remarkably challenged by it. It was very hard not to think of my own life while reading this book. And this did not make me feel comfortable.

I guess we are all fairly predictable, and one of the things that makes us especially predictable is that we generally like to have our prejudices confirmed. We buy books that tell us over and over again what we already know and believe. The Left Behind series is just one such example, as are most self help books. And I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. But there is a much better sensation we can get from a book, although this is much more rare. It is when the person you are reading starts telling you the deeper reasons why your beliefs are valid and not just based on prejudice. I have always believed talent is another (although, less apparent and all too vague) word for hard work. I’ve also believed that we are products of a range of different variables too complex to know in any real detail. This book confirms those prejudices.

First he talks about ice hockey and a fascinating fact about the birthdays of the best players. They are all born at around the same time of the year. It is as if there is a cut off date for when you will be a professional ice hockey player – and, in fact, there is. The short version is that if you are born on the wrong side of the date they use to group kids into age levels you are likely to be a year younger than the other kids you are playing ice hockey with and therefore a year smaller than them too. That is going to make them look like they are better players than you are – and they will be too. A year at 10 is a huge difference, a huge advantage. And then we compound that advantage, by giving the older kids more practice, more experience in games and then more experience and more practice until there is no way the kid who happened to be born on the wrong side of the cut off date has any chance of catching up.

The point he makes strongly here and repeatedly in the first part of the book is that there are other factors to success that are more than just ‘natural ability’. In fact, he does not believe in ‘natural ability’ – only in effort and time. Essentially he shows that if you put in 10,000 hours on any task you will be highly proficient at that task. Innate ability does not exist and ability is actually a function of effort expended. This is both liberating and incredibly challenging. Liberating because success is related to the effort you put in (and I think you should believe that is true even if it isn’t – it is the myth of Sisyphus, the only way we can really cope with the world is to believe our efforts have meaning). Challenging, because ultimately we are responsible for our own success as we are directly responsible for how much effort we are prepared to put in.

The second great theme of this book is that where you come from matters. The culture that we are from has a remarkable impact on the rest of our lives. For example, if you are from a working class background you are much less likely to approach life with an attitude of ‘entitlement’. When people in authority speak to you, you are probably less likely to question them. In fact, you might believe you should defer to them. You are probably more likely to believe rules exist for a reason and that rules can’t be changed and can’t be moved. People from the middle class are much more likely to see rules as things that can be shaped or changed or ignored to make their life more easy or rewarding. Having come from the working class, even a particularly radical end of it, I can still see aspects of this deference in my own character and this was perhaps the most challenging part of the book for me.

The other challenging bit was the part about the Hatfields and McCoys. As a Northern Irish boy, even if I’m not as obsessed with ‘honour’ as I might have been, this does make sense of things I have wondered about for a long time. The solution might be a little too neat, but the Irish, particularly the Northern Irish, are far too likely to feuds that are intractable and recognising that that might have cultural roots beyond the excuse of religion is utterly fascinating to me.

The lessons of this book can be put into a brief sentence: success depends on a series of cultural and other factors that are mostly beyond your control – however, the thing that is totally within your control about success is how much effort you put in. And the more effort you put in the more likely you will be successful. They are directly proportional and we should all praise work as the key thing that really makes us human.

I loved this book. I noticed that Ginnie points to a pilot who disputes some of what Gladwell says about culture and plane crashes, but this is a minor point. His bigger point about culture and plane crashes still stands and is remarkable. If you have kids, read this book – it will give you hints on how to bring them up with perhaps a modest sense of entitlement – it could make all of the difference. Ginnie also has a link to an article with a photo of the man himself – I was saying to the kids yesterday that I would give a couple of toes to look nearly as cool as he does, but I think it would take more than just toes.


Look, what can I say? Read this book, it is life altering. Well, maybe not life altering, but a delight nonetheless.
194 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Outliers.
Sign In »

Quotes Trevor Liked

Malcolm Gladwell
“Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig. (150)”
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Reading Progress

01/29 marked as: read

Comments (showing 173-222)

message 222: by Joy H. (last edited May 01, 2011 10:31PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Hi Trevor,
A lot of what you say makes a lot of sense. We've always known that folks with more opportunities (cultural, environmental and otherwise) will usually have more chance at succeeding. We've also always known that hard work, determination, and perseverance will help us succeed.

However, you wrote: In fact, he does not believe in ‘natural ability’ – only in effort and time. Do really believe that there are no folks who have natural perfect pitch? Do you really believe that there is no such thing as natural musical talent, e.g., the talent of people who can play the piano without having had one lesson in their entire lives? Do you really believe that there are no folks who have a natural facility with numbers? Do really believe that there is no such thing as a photographic memory? Are you saying that the author, Malcolm Gladwell, believes that there are no natural abilities like the ones I mentioned above?

If so, then I've lost faith in the premise of the book.* Yes, there are many factors which foster success, but we can't dismiss the fact that one of those factors is natural ability.

How about coming to our group and starting a discussion about this? I like the way you write.

Below is a link to our group:
link: Glens Falls (NY) Online Book Discussion Group

I'd appreciate it if you would post your comments at the following topic which I started at our group. It's about _Outliers The Story of Success_.

Please see the link to my topic below:

Thank you. Hope to see you there.

So far, no one has responded to my topic.
Why don't you be the first? (g)

I'd appreciate it... because I think it's a fabulous topic for getting a good conversation going and I think you'll like the folks who are the core posters at our group.

Joy H.
Moderator of the Glens Falls group

* Update(added 10/10/09: See my comment, #165 #162, in this group of comments.

message 221: by Trevor (last edited Jan 25, 2009 02:12PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Hi Joy,

He struggles with the idea of natural ability at one point in the book and probably does not come down as strongly against it as I have said - however, he does come down against it strongly enough and I tend to agree that we should ignore natural ability - this is because when you ask those who are supposed to have natuarl ability how they have achieved anything they NEVER say, "Oh, it's because I was naturally brilliant" Instead, they ALWAYS say, "It is because since I was 6 I did lots and lots of work - most of it hard work, although, most of that hard work was also done with joy." Pitch can be trained, memory can be trained, musical ability is one of the things he looks at in depth in the book, as is mathematical ability. None of them seem like terribly strong arguments in favour of this illusive quality 'Natural Ability'.

The point isn't, I've never had a lesson and now I am Mozart - the point of the book is the exact opposite - access to quality instruction is the sort of advantage that sets the successful apart from the unsuccessful.

I tend to avoid groups, I'm afraid. I become far too involved in them and it only ends in tears. Thank you for the invitation, though.

All the best


message 220: by Joy H. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Hi Trevor,
I understand what you're saying and agree to an extent. On the other hand, I've seen enough natural ability in young children to know that there is such a thing as natural ability. People who have it don't even know they have it! (g) They think everyone else has it too. Yes, natural ability exists and it's a big factor. However, the other factors we've mentioned are just as important, if not more.

Below are some interesting quotes I know you'll enjoy:
“I have no particular talent. I am merely inquisitive.” -Albert Einstein

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." -Albert Einstein:

"I know perfectly well that I myself have no special talents. It was curiosity, obsession, and sheer perseverance that brought me to my ideas...Exploration of my ancestors therefore leads nowhere." -Albert Einstein

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all.” -Michelangelo
You see, these men didn't even know they had natural ability! That's my point. Do you really believe that any old body could come up with the theory of relativity? LOL

Trevor, I'm sorry to hear that you've had bad experiences at groups. So have I, but I've also had many good experiences. It all depends on the folks in the group. So far, our group is very congenial and knowledgeable. So far we've have no trolls. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. (g)

Thanks for this interesting conversation. If you ever want to drop by the group, please do. You will be very welcome.

Below is the link:
You might want to bookmark it. (big smile)


message 219: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Oh, I would hate to be your first troll...

message 218: by Joy H. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. LOL - Nice to see you have a sense of humor too. (g)

message 217: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Hi Trevor - I'm reminded of the quote about the world being run by the people who bother to turn up. Sometimes that may be slightly true. Hard work and a flying start will get you success, but I can think of many examples like, say, Mississippi John Hurt or Cripple Clarence Lofton, two great black musicians who started from dire poverty and no education, and learned how to play their instruments by simply watching other people do it. You know I could watch a pianist and a guitarist for 12 straight months and at the end of it do you think I'd be able to play anything at all apart from Chopsticks? To put it the other way round, how many unpublished novelists knock their brains out month after month producing novels which are never going to see the light of print because they have no flair and no originality? Thousands. You need a little of that natural ability in there somewhere.

message 216: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Hi Paul, Oh no, not natural ability. You need feedback. You need competent instruction. No one learns to play anything by watching - that is a myth that only someone like me who can't play anyting could fall for. My daughters both play piano, but not by watching - by doing and then by being told not just when they are doing something wrong, but why doing something right is right.

He is very interesting about musicisns here. He looks at pianists and finds the ones who have put in the most practice are the ones who become concert pianists. Those who have put in less teach.

I believe this is our most cherished myth - the myth of the naturally talented. I also believe we would be much better off without this myth. I've read all of Gladwell's books after reading this one. This is by far the best - and I think that is so because it has the most important message.

As a piss poor writer of fiction I know that the ways to improve my fiction writing are in writing more, in reading more, and in exposing what I write to the painful fire of criticism. Just writing is never enough.

Ten thousand hours is not enough if they are ten thousand hours of doing the same thing badly. But I would be prepared to argue that no one who has spent 10,000 hours determined to write sentences that are clear and to the point ever ended up a worse writer or worse person for the effort. If I have a creed, that is it.

message 215: by Paul (last edited Mar 06, 2009 03:18PM) (new)

Paul Bryant Helena Rubinstein said there are no ugly women, only lazy ones. Young musician stops an old guy in New York - hey, how do you get to Carnegie hall? Old guy says Practise, practise. But still, I think if my local rock band practises until their fingers bleed and gets all sorts of great feedback then yes, they will get to be easily as good as a very good rock band (as opposed to the rubbish one they currently are) but they'll never write an album like Revolver or Blonde on Blonde. So if you're not comparing your hardworking stiffs with the absolute top of their respective professions then okay, no natural ability required. Put it into sporting terms - average tennis player plus massive hard work and massive support structures will propel this player into the top ten, but he still won't beat Nadal or Federer.

message 214: by Manny (new)

Manny I've seen interesting stories on both sides of this question. For two or three years in the 80s, I played on the same chess team as Ferdinand Hellers, who was a Grandmaster before he was 18. We were all rather in awe of him, and asked him how he did it. He said it was just hard work. In particular, he managed when he was quite young to get hold of a complete collection of Informator, the premier international chess publication. I think he said he'd played though all the games. That would have been about 50 volumes of about 800 games each, so maybe 40,000 games. These days, it's easier because you can get million-game databases on CDs for a couple of hundred dollars, and you also see a whole lot more young Grandmasters.

On the other side, my younger son had never really done any Chemistry before was about 15, but then he suddenly decided that it was very interesting, and he would make it his major - previously, he had wanted to do Math and Art. He's now reading Chemistry at University. I have a lot of chemists in my family on both sides, and I couldn't help feeling that there might be some genetic aptitude that he'd inherited. It certainly wasn't a question of me or my wife pushing him. If there is a chemistry gene, it skipped me completely - I've never been interested in molecular structure. She's never had any interest in the subject either.

message 213: by Trevor (last edited Mar 06, 2009 03:37PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I know nothing about sport so have no idea if that is a good or bad thing to do. Do these people deserve to be beaten? It seems a little harsh to me.

Not Revolver or Blood on the Tracks, but if they are creative then whatever 'their' greatest album will be. Creativity is hard to express or understand. That Tull could do Thick as a Brick and then do some of that later stuff that sounds too much and too little like Dire Straits is, to me, very hard to explain. Perhaps there is still a place for the muses - but we err in giving the muses to much credit and too much blame. Every liberation is also a condemnation. In this case, the liberation comes by knowing the power is in our own hands - the condemnation comes by us never trying hard enough, never wanting it enough to put in the time.

And as for Helena Rubinstein, I find I'm becoming like that character in The Blind Assassin who says that the older she gets the more beautiful she finds young people. Except I'm finding people in general beautiful, as much for their scars as for anything else. In beauty I think the opposite to Helena - women start off beautiful, and the more paint the less beautiful they become. So, natural ability in this case wins over effort...

message 212: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Sorry Manny, we crossed. I don't know what to think about genetics. I don't mean that in the sense that saying 'I don't know what to think' about something is often a good way to say exactly what one thinks about it. In this case I really have no idea. I've read Pinker on some of this stuff and it all seems a bit odd to me. I have problems accepting that DNA coding for protein production can make someone more likely to end up a chemist. But like you say, we seem to see examples of that all of the time. It disturbs me greatly.

message 211: by Manny (new)

Manny Trevor wrote: "I have problems accepting that DNA coding for protein production can make someone more likely to end up a chemist. But like you say, we seem to see examples of that all of the time. It disturbs me greatly."

Well, it's a commonplace that some aptitudes, in particular for mathematics and music, are often inherited. We'd never heard people say that about chemistry, but, when you come down to it, why not? And what's disturbing about it? There are so many steps in between the protein coding and the aptitude...

message 210: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I really struggle to get my head around it. Pinker in one of his books - can't remember which now, probably the Blank Slate, but it could also be how the mind works, it is years since I read either - talks about twins who were separated at birth and then found each other later in life. They both made a habit of doing odd things in lifts. Now, I struggle to understand how DNA would code for such behaviour. I remember Pinker makes the point that he doesn't think it actually does code for quite that much detail, but then it is hard to know what is being coded for in these cases. I also worry that ideas like this can so easily end up being used to justify racism - think the Bell Curve - and I would rather be wrong than to support that disgusting filth.

message 209: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant I would also throw in the various anecdotes from musicians who are almost keen not to take the credit for their work, perversely, when they say stuff like - I didn't write this, it just came through me from somewhere else. Is this false modesty? It's almost a badge of honour to shrug off any effort involved, as in the story of Dylan meeting Cohen in 1985 and asking him about his song Hallelujah - how long did that one take to write? Cohen explained that it took four years to get it right & then politely asked about one of Bob's recent ones, "I & I" - that's a great song, Bob, how long did that one take? and Bob said "twenty minutes".

message 208: by Manny (new)

Manny Well, I don't want to be a racist either, but The Blank Slate is all about how you can go too far towards the other extreme, and say NOTHING is inherited... and that's just as wrong. He gives any number of examples. I doubt that DNA is coding for aptitude in chemistry as such, but it could code for things that are very compatible with it, like an ability to visualize 3-D structures and a good memory for certain kinds of facts. Pinker estimates that 60% of mental ability is inherited...

message 207: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I guess after 50 years one can write a song in twenty minutes.

I've always been fond of Steven Rose's Not In Our Genes. I'm not sure these matters are quite as settled as Pinker makes out. And I am sorry, I didn't mean to imply you did want to be racist. Chomsky seems to argue that we are DNA coded towards acquiring language, that we could never learn a language if this was not the case. This always reminds me of Kant's faculties, our innate prior filters for the world. There must be some truth in all of this, I think. I worry, because this seems to put fundamental limits on human abilities, and if we humans seem to have one ability, it does seem to be our ability to overcome limits.

Like I said, I struggle most with this stuff - I don't quite know what to make of it. There is something delightfully Darwinian about the 'it is in our genes' side of the debate, but I worry that might not be enough.

message 206: by Manny (last edited Mar 07, 2009 12:14AM) (new)

Manny Oh, I didn't think you were implying that I was racist! And yes, I've also wondered about the Chomsky/Kant link. Surely someone must have written a book about that?

Even if we are limited by our genes, that doesn't mean we can't work around those limitations. I don't want to go all Kurzweil on you, but, in particular, we are now building software intelligences which won't necessarily be limited in the same way...

message 205: by Trevor (last edited Mar 12, 2009 04:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Yes, there really ought to be a book about that. It has troubled me for years.

I wonder how that would work - I wonder if we could eventually build an artificial intelligence that would be able to transend the limitations of our own intelligence. And how we would know? My gut feeling is to assume we might think the machine was mad, but perhaps that is due to my having heard too many stories about great thinkers too far ahead of their times, etc.

message 204: by Manny (last edited Mar 12, 2009 04:39PM) (new)

Manny Well, we already have build artificial intelligences that transcend our limitations within the admittedly narrow field of chess. But I'm a chess player, so I see it all the time. I sometimes wonder if this isn't a taste of the future...

message 203: by Trevor (last edited Mar 07, 2009 12:08PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Distracted by that all too human need to sleep. I'm rather taken with John Searle and his Chinese room. I think the underlying assumption by Searle is that because computers can't be self-conscious it is hard to see it as intelligence. I guess in context of the chess game the programmer could program the computer to say, "I win, you lose, eat shit and die" or "I appear to have beaten you - I'm so terribly sorry, I will self-destruct now". And neither 'response' would really make any difference to the computer. How much we can say the computer is 'playing chess' is also an interesting question - although, I would admit not one likely to proved any comfort to the player who has just been slaughtered by said computer. (In fact, I would suspect being told the computer 'wasn't even playing' might make matters worse).

I can imagine that self-awareness might be a handicap - I am possibly even prepared to admit that this may well have been the story of my life - however, in chess there is a measureable outcome (success state?) and there is a direct relationship between level of computational power thrown at the problem and the computer's chance of reaching that outcome. It is not clear that 'intelligence' is either quite so measureable as an outcome nor quite so directly dependant on computational power - at least, computational power alone.

Much of what I've read about intelligence seems to put it on par with pornography - people seem to think they recognise it when they see it.

But, this is much more your field than mine. I would be very interested in your views on all this. I was thinking the other day that throwing more brain matter (literally brain matter) into a head isn't quite enough. For example, it is International Women's Day today, and so, to celebrate... Men have, I believe, a brain which is 10% larger than a woman's. Neanderthals had brains that were 10% larger than men's. Now, if that is not a direct correlation I'm not sure what is.

Happy International Women's Day!

message 202: by Manny (last edited Mar 07, 2009 12:23PM) (new)

Manny We'd better not start on the Chinese Room. I once talked with someone who'd spent a lot of time reading all of the hundreds of papers that had been written on it. His summary was amazingly simple: no philospher who has taken up a position on the Chinese Room argument has ever changed their mind. That's quite interesting when you think about it!

On chess programs... well, no one in the chess world cares if they are conscious, you're only interested in how well they play. Even the strongest grandmasters defer to their opinions a lot of the time. They play a game, then they go and ask the machine how well they did. It's a bit scary.

message 201: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I know enough about chess to know I know virtually nothing. I was told when I was very young that the best players think a couple of moves ahead. Practice taught me I could never do this, so I stopped playing. It was only later in life that I found what the people who told me this might have meant was that the best players play in patterns and so see more than a couple of moves ahead. Either way, it was a case of incompetent instruction convincing me to give up something I always quite enjoyed.

message 200: by Manny (new)

Manny Anyone can think two moves ahead in some positions! And no one can in other positions. You were given bad advice :)

message 199: by Stephen (new)

Stephen As a musician, I almost feel able to contribute to this discussion. Mozart possessed something few in history did, and he was probably an Idiot Savant. One part of the mind can be so fully developed that hardly anyone can teach that mind anything new. Mozart was at the keyboard by three years of age. No one teaches three year old children how to play.

And I disagree about perfect pitch--it cannot be learned by practice. All that you might improve with your pitch is relative pitch. That means, here is "C" now sing me "G-flat." Mozart heard a piece of music in the Sistine Chapel -- copies of which were not allowed even for the singers who had to learned it by rote, and Mozart went home and wrote the entire piece out from memory.

No, there is innate talent. In Mozart's case, he had it in excess. He also had the social skills of a four year old, and the only kind of jokes he really enjoyed were about farts and feces.

You two intimidate me by your learning and erudition, and I am NOT kidding about that. So all this is respectfully submitted.

Helen (Helena/Nell) The ability to write book reviews is probably not innate.

This is such a good one, and it leads me to suppose you've not only put in a bit of practice, but that it is paying off. Another book to add to my list. Sigh.

Someone really SHOULD send a link to this review to Malcolm Gladwell, who might like to think Trevor would give two toes to look as cool as him, quite apart from the other compliments. Who knows him? Come on, now. Somebody must! What's that thing about everybody being no more than seven people from everybody else?

message 197: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I bet Trevor is smarter than Gladwell, any day of the week. Also, thank goodness Trevor does NOT look like Gladwell.

Paul or Manny are bound to know him, though.

Helen (Helena/Nell) Agreed then. Trevor is not only smarter but we prefer the way he looks. Okay, Candles?

message 195: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Gosh.

It is Monday morning here - thanks for making this an even better Monday that I was expecting it to be.

Richard I seem to recall that Gladwell examined Mozart -- didn't he? It's been many months since I read this book. And he said that same 10,000 hours kicked in, since 'though Mozart was composing at a wondrously early age, it is his later stuff that we really celebrate as genius -- starting in his mid-teens, I find after checking in with Wikipedia.

It appears that Mozart was exposed to the keyboard at the age of three while watching his seven-year-old sister being tutored, and he was encouraged. Soon he was being intensively tutored by his father, and even then the first piece he composed that "is still widely played today" came at age 14.

Playing the piano at such a tender age is definitely at the edge of the distribution curve, but there are also stories of kids learning Latin by four, calculus by six, etc., with few of them ending up as "geniuses". Terman's "Genetic Studies of Genius" went a long way towards eliminating any substantial link between childhood exceptionalism and subsequent adult "genius".

And the most recent research on perfect pitch I've heard is quite intriguing. It seems from studies of infants that everyone might be born with perfect pitch, but that it is typically lost very early unless something keeps that from happening (e.g., explicit musical training, or perhaps a lucky degree of curiosity about music at a crucial age). The "perfect pitch" gene(s) they are examining that shows some heritability seems to act by extending the deadline before the innate talent fades, but doesn't change the talent itself. But in families that value the skill, training will more often start early enough that the trait is exhibited.

message 193: by Joy H. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Richard wrote: "I seem to recall that Gladwell examined Mozart -- didn't he? ...
... And the most recent research on perfect pitch I've heard is quite intriguing."

Richard, thanks for the interesting info re perfect pitch. Thanks too for the link to the related webpage. From that webpage we can see that the issue isn't quite resolved:
"But in a closer study of 73 families researchers found a region of genes on chromosome eight in those with perfect pitch and from European ancestry. More study is needed to zero in on just which gene or multiple genes might be responsible. And for comparison they intend to study individuals without perfect pitch but with equivalent musical training.

There is some evidence that babies have the ability for absolute pitch, so researchers for this study theorize that maybe most lose this ability with age, but that what a so-called pitch gene does is extend this talent through a crucial period in childhood."

(reported by Christie Nicholson)

message 192: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Hi Joy, I noticed that the study only found the genes in those of European ancestry - I wonder about Asian children who speak tonal languages. I know this isn't quite the same thing as perfect pitch, but I would have been interested in any relationship. Seems odd that Europeans might have different genes for this to everyone else.

message 191: by Joy H. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Trevor wrote: "Hi Joy, I noticed that the study only found the genes in those of European ancestry - I wonder about Asian children who speak tonal languages. I know this isn't quite the same thing as perfect pit..."

Good point, Trevor. It's a complex issue.

All I know is that I wish I had the talent to play piano by ear. I took piano lessons and can read music and play, but I'll never understand how people are able to play by ear. My FIL could do it from the time he was a kid, after he listened to his older sister struggle through her piano lessons. Everyone was amazed. He was able to play piano, organ, and accordian without ever having taken a lesson. He could not read music.

I tried learning to improvise at the piano after having taken lessons from 9 yrs old to 13 yrs old, but I could never do it. I am in awe of people who can play by ear. Can't understand how they do it.

BTW, how do the scientists account for people who are completely tone deaf? Another puzzle.

message 190: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben In case you didn't see it there was a pretty damning review of the book and subsequent interesting discussion of the book in the New Republic last February.

message 189: by Richard (last edited Sep 06, 2009 01:59PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Richard I just read the review and didn't see it as damning at all. Mr. Chotiner's attack was mostly just snarky: he agrees with most of the fundamental idea behind Gladwell's book — he writes:
Gladwell's overarching thesis in Outliers is so obviously correct that it hardly merits discussion. "The people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are." Also, tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of your life.
The book reviews I respect seldom ladle out the sarcasm with such a heavy hand.

But if Gladwell's main idea isn't contentious, what is? Apparently Chotiner has the inside track to what Gladwell is thinking, and wants to alert us to his hidden and nefarious motives. One example: "But Gladwell's new book is intended as a rejection of the self-help ideal." Another: "He dislikes attributing individual accomplishment to the accomplishing individuals." Really? I'm glad there are people on the web that are so much smarter than I am, and smarter than Mr. Gladwell, to tell us how to understand Gladwell's book.

And he spends a lot of time attacking Gladwell's "10,000 hour rule": "And didn't Salieri also have ten thousand hours of composing music under his belt and remain notoriously without greatness?"

Mr. Chotiner needs to shut up and spend more time on his own education. Maybe he should start by trying to understand the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. It has been a few months since I read this book, but it seemed pretty clear to me that Gladwell wasn't telling us that the be-all and end-all of greatness is 10,000 hours.

One of the rules of honest forensics is to treat your opponents argument with respect. Chotiner, instead, constructs an elaborate pottage of straw-men arguments. The American glorification of individualism is what Gladwell seemed to want to take down a notch, and as far as I could tell he didn't seem to be trying to replace it with something equally simplistic, as Chotiner asserts.

Long practice times, and especially the social conditions that permit and encourage such long practice time, were the factors Gladwell emphasized. Despite the fact that it isn't difficult to find counter examples (such as Hakeem Olajuwon in the opening paragraphs), but I think his argument is still extraordinarily strong, and his book worth a great deal. Mr. Chotiner's essay, on the other hand, is dross. He is indeed "Mr. Lucky" if someone was foolish enough to pay him to propound his poorly thought-out biases.

message 188: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I did miss this article, Ben. I would have to say that he has wilfully misunderstood Gladwell throughout. I don't mind people being controversialists, but generally only if they are arguing a coherent case, which is simply not true in this article. Gladwell's point wasn't 'if you are lucky enough to be born into the right culture you will succeed', but rather, hard work and competent instruction are more important than some generally confusing concept like 'natural ability' - in fact, the concept of natural ability just seems circular - he is good at basketball, he has a natural ability, therefore he is good at basketball. I'm also not sure that playing soccer and handball really is all that different in helping someone develop the hand/eye coordination needed for other sports.

Personally, I found the distinction between Western notions of luck and Asian notions of hard work remarkably instructive (we do wish people luck when they go for a test, whereas, my daughters tell me, the Japanese say to those doing a test, 'do your best' - not hard to see which of these two gives the agent more power over the outcome.

I think the person who wrote that article wilfully misread the book - the book is written in a popular style, and most of the criticisms of the book are of that styly, rather than its substance. This is a pity. I would still recommend the book without hesitation - I think there is much to learn from it.

message 187: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Richard, what can I say? - an excellent defence and if I'd just waited a second I'd have not needed to post at all.

message 186: by David (last edited Sep 06, 2009 02:29PM) (new)

David Of Gladwell's three books to date, this is the one I haven't read. But since that has never stopped me before, pardon me for wading in to this discussion ...

One criticism I find that lingers about "The Tipping Point" and "Blink" (the latter in particular) is that, despite their awesome readability (and I suspect we can all agree this is something Gladwell is able to do par excellence - write readable books, a feat not to be sneezed at in the area of non-fiction), one is left at the end with the sense of having been presented with a series of examples and an implied argument that these examples somehow constitute a proof of some greater thesis. But - maybe it's my mathematical training - I find myself agreeing more with Manny than with Trevor - to me this is not a convincing argument, no matter how juicy and interesting the set of examples presented might be. No convincing GENERAL argument has been supplied.

From what I glean of "Outliers", this criticism would also seem to apply. There is also - to me - a certain logical difficulty, which I might categorize as a kind of selection bias. By focusing our attention on the prodigy who practises for 10,000 hours and succeeds, Gladwell distracts us from the multitudes who put in just as much time without attaining fame or fortune. Why the discrepancy? I'd have to side with the viewpoint that innate ability has some part to play in explaining it. I think Gladwell confuses the idea of a necessary and a sufficient condition when he attributes so much explanatory power to hard work and time spent practicing one's craft.

The overall argument of Blink for me could be summarized as "Trust your gut instinct, except in those cases when you shouldn't". My impression is that "Outliers" does no better in developing and supporting an overall coherent thesis.

To engage in the dangerous practice of arguing generally from my own specific experience - you could surround me and instruct me in the use of tools and mechanical devices from here to eternity, and it would be like teaching a pig to sing - a waste of time, and it just annoys the pig (in this case, moi).

But, as always, Trevor's review is da bomb!

message 185: by Trevor (last edited Sep 06, 2009 03:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Stephen Fry says in his autobiography Moab Is My Washpot that his near infinite love of music is only matched by his complete incapability to make any - I'm sure he would have been more than happy to spend 10,000 hours if there was any hope of return - he was certain there would not be. I guess there is definitely a spectrum and for ideological reasons I've tended to go for the most 'effort equals rewards' end of that spectrum. I think that given we do tend to come down on the 'he was born with those skills' side - it is good to hear another voice to this.

I agree about Blink - the more I've thought about it the less impressed with it I have become. I'm much the same
David, when it comes to mechanical things and people do have interests that do almost seem innate - but this was still the best of the Gladwell books I've read and although I think you are probably right that there isn't really an over-arching theory, the sub-theories, (your culture affects you in ways you may not guess, success is about exposure and experience, a sense of entitlement is worth its weight in gold) are interesting enough on their own to sustain the book. When I told my sister to read this book I did so on the basis that the section on how working class and middle class kids are 'taught' to respond to authority is a lesson kids really need to learn. I think it is one lesson we do learn as we are growing up and one I was keen to make sure it was a lesson my nephews and niece had a chance to benefit from.

They are odd things, these reviews. I only recently got my sister to read this book and shortly afterwards people have started commenting on this again. Ah, subtle are the joys of coincidence and serendipity.

message 184: by David (new)

David I think we are actually reasonably in agreement, Trevor. For instance, I absolutely grant the validity of one of Gladwell's central points - that the quality of "genius" or "innate ability" is something that is severely overrated in Western culture - any non-perfunctory analysis shows that success comes only as the result of a combination of innate ability with an extraordinary amount of time invested in developing that ability.

In the Irish university system under which I studied (which was an odd kind of a copy of the British system on which it had been modeled), there was this odd phenomenon wherein it was totally uncool to admit that one put in time studying (though anyone with eyes in their head could see that this was a prerequisite for success). Thus, the height of coolness was to achieve one's first honours degree while somehow simultaneously maintaining the fiction that one had managed to do so without cracking a book. So that, at one point or another during the year, each of us would effect a voluntary withdrawal from what passed as our social lives to hit the books, without ever acknowledging that that was what we were doing. The whole thing was oddly perverted, but was definitely one way in which the myth of success as a result of pure genius and nothing more was perpetuated.

message 183: by Joy H. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. David wrote: "... any non-perfunctory analysis shows that success comes only as the result of a combination of innate ability with an extraordinary amount of time invested in developing that ability. ..."

True. What would make a person work so hard in a certain area? Because he as an affinity for that area of study. In other words, we must take into account the person's affinity for a certain area of study. Why was he drawn to it in the first place? Because he has a natural inclination toward it. He then finds that he's good at it. That propels him further to work at it... because he enjoys being good at it. It's a cycle. One factor propels the other.

Where does that proclivity come from? I believe that it's in the genes to start with. (Call it a natural talent or an ability... or a predisposition, a bent, a propensity.) It takes off from there.

True, he has to be in the right environment for all of the above to develop. But unless that original proclivity is there, nothing of note will develop.

Makes sense to me. Where am I wrong?

Richard I think this is where you are wrong:
Joy H. (of Glens Falls) wrote: "Where does that proclivity come from? I believe that it's in the genes to start with. (Call it a natural talent or an ability... or a predisposition, a bent, a propensity.) It takes off from there."

You've put first and foremost inclination, thus relegating nuture to second tier at best. But even Mozart only knew what he would end up inclined towards because his father was tutoring his older sister, and encouraged the activity.

A tall child might naturally be good at basketball, but not realize he or she enjoys it until someone puts a ball in their hands. Even then, they might discover they are clumsy as all get-out (doesn't anyone recall from their youth the stereotype of the gangly type tripping over their own suddenly long legs?), but simply being tall meant that school coaches, parents, peers, etc., keep encouraging them. (Sorry to the international crowd here about the basketball example.)

I think inclination will far more often only develop after exposure, and Gladwell was spot-on to point out that kids from "high status" families tend to get more exposure to what our culture ends up valuing. Poor kids get exposure to television and video games.

I don't think anyone's going to get a grant to do this study but: swap someone with a poor person's genes into a rich person's role, and vice versa, and the genes won't be nearly as important as the opportunities afforded by the environment -- or lack thereof. If Mozart had accidentally been swapped at birth with some poor family's child, any affinity he had would have been irrelevant. Meanwhile, any random affinity his replacement possessed would suddenly have a magnificent chance at being recognized and nutured.

message 181: by Trevor (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I've bought a string of books on genes and such over the last couple of months, but haven't had time to read any of them - although I suspect that is about to change. Over the next couple of months I'm going to make a concerted effort and try to finish them all. I have to admit that I struggle with the idea that we can have genes that get us to play the piano - but I guess music is easier to explain than some other relationships discussed as being 'genetic'. Having fallen for women with nice singing voices in the past I do get the sexual selection advantages that might come from such abilities.

A very close friend of mine was adopted and then tracked down by the family years later. She said she felt she had nothing in common with them. I grew up with friends who were identical twins - they looked very much alike when I first met them, but they were not very much alike when you got to know them. Identical strangers, in many ways.

And yes, David - the great Irish myth that everything can be achieved while three parts pissed and with zero effort - were that it was even half true.

message 180: by Joy H. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Richard wrote: "... I think inclination will far more often only develop after exposure, and Gladwell was spot-on to point out that kids from "high status" families tend to get more exposure to what our culture ends up valuing. Poor kids get exposure to television and video games. ..."

Richard, I agree that nurture is extremely important, but you can't nurture something that isn't there.

message 179: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I agree with Joy H.

Rather like you can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear.

message 178: by Joy H. (last edited Sep 07, 2009 06:04AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Trevor wrote: "... I grew up with friends who were identical twins - they looked very much alike when I first met them, but they were not very much alike when you got to know them. Identical strangers, in many ways. ..."

Trevor, there have been many studies of identical twins, separated at birth and then reunited. The studies show that they were very alike in many ways, despite their different upbringings. I listened to the audio of the following book: _Identical Strangers A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited_. It confirmed my conviction that we are what we are, largely because of our genes. The studies indicate that our temperaments, our preferences, and even our physical mannerisms, are inherited. How can you ignore these studies?

I admit that opportunity has to be figured into the equation, but I would put nature before nurture, or at least give each one equal importance.

Perhaps we are trying to solve that age-old unsolvable question:
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

message 177: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben There was a great story last month on the NPR show This American Life about two babies who were switched at birth:

message 176: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Whew, I better stay out of this one. Out of my intellectual depth.

message 175: by Joy H. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Ben wrote: "There was a great story last month on the NPR show This American Life about two babies who were switched at birth: "

Thank you, Ben. Sounds interesting.
I'm now listening to the full audio of the episode at:
It's almost an hour long, but is compelling.

message 174: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 07, 2009 06:56AM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Joy H. (of Glens Falls) wrote: "Perhaps we are trying to solve that age-old unsolvable question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

Evolutionary biology has settled that one (it's the egg):

message 173: by Joy H. (last edited Sep 07, 2009 07:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy H. Stephen wrote: "Whew, I better stay out of this one. Out of my intellectual depth."

Stephen, the "chicken or the egg" question is out of EVERYONE'S depth. :)

PS-Hmmm, I guess not. See the link which MFSO posted here just now.

« previous 1 3 4 5
back to top