Mike's Reviews > Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
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Mar 04, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in February, 2009 , read count: 1

I've read Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, which seemed just a little too pat and self-assured about offering large conclusions and broad generalizations based on small effects and anecdotes from sociological studies.

Outliers seemed to start in the same way, but it became a much more thoughtful, humane, and thought-provoking book as it went along. If I had to try to summarize Gladwell's thesis in the book, it would be that something like mathematical chaos theory applies to human society: that initial conditions can have a major, unpredictable effect on later outcomes, and that those initial conditions can be remarkably persistent through time, even across generations.

The threads he weaves in this book demonstrate both a Proverbs-like (keep your nose to the grindstone, hard work is always rewarded, a penny saved is a penny earned) and an Ecclesiastes-like (bad things happen to good people, the world seems too random to be rational) view of the world. He puts forward the claim that the kind of grain your ancestors grew hundreds of years ago broadly effects your success with learning mathematics. He traces modern hotheadedness to ancestral herding culture. He traces human-error disasters to cultures of deference. He shows how small differences are often emphasized, magnified, and reinforced to give provide huge differences in outcomes from very very small differences in potential. He describes differences in parental styles based on class, and tries to link that to how children deal with the world as they grow.

What can we conclude from such a theory? Gladwell talks generally about using these observations to try to change our social structure to cultivate that potential which is often squandered - a noble idea. I would also add that if what he describes here is true - and I've met too many people who are "successful" and noticed that they don't seem any smarter or harder working than many other people I know not to believe it - then we are well justified in changing the gross inequalities in our social systems as well.

I would recommend this book if you are interested in the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and thinking about ways to level playing fields.
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message 1: by Gwen (new)

Gwen Mike writes: "I've met too many people who are "successful" and noticed that they don't seem any smarter or harder working than many other people I know"

I've had the same thought... If you look at any wildly "successful" person (i.e. multi-millionaire or billionaire), they are typically lucky (i.e. in the right place at the right time) or they have inherited their wealth. A few might be true geniuses who have truly earned their rewards. But most don't seem smarter or harder working. In fact, many of the people who are "successful" turn out to be less hard working and less honest than the average person. Not all, but a lot.

Then I look at myself and I wonder how I could possibly work "harder" or "smarter" to earn millions or billions of dollars, and I really can't think of any way I could. I don't think I'm dumb or lazy, I'm just not in the right place at the right time to make a bezillion dollars... And there are a lot of schmucks in the world who work just as hard as I do but earn a lot less.


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