Michelle's Reviews > Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
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's review
Dec 01, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: politics-economics
Read in March, 2009

Well. I'd sure heard this book raved about by folks who said it would change how I looked at everything. It only changes my opinion of the gullibility of people to think that so many people would swallow this guy's weak arguments without a blink. I read particularly egregious examples to my teen sons, who would gleefully holler "Post hoc ergo procter hoc! Hasty generalization!"
I've heard several comparisons to "Freakanomics" I think that is a fair comparison. It is almost as bad in its use of statistics and examples as that book.
Gladwell's main point is that there really is no such thing as genius or great talent; people are merely a product of their time and place and history. If they got lucky, they became successful; if no luck, they are trapped.
One of the particularly bad sections asserts that to be a really successful American businessman, one needed to be born in the 1830's. To "prove" this, he uses a list of the "75 richest people in human history." Where did he GET this list? How does he know that Amenhopis II was richer than John Jacob Aster? Did he manage to get ahold of his Swiss bank accounts? No, he read it on Wikipedia. Now THERE's a totally unassailable source. It is notoriously difficult to get really good, reliable data on economic factors from countries three hundred years ago. Now imagine the problems of trying to rank everyone in all of history. Yeah. That's what I think too.
Interestingly, the wiki page had TWO HUNDRED people on the list. WHY on earth did Gladwell use only 75? No explanation given. (I suspect it might have messed up his argument.) What about using data of all billionaires? Well, I'm not sure that statistically speaking, Gladwell is up to the challenge, so I guess I understand why he just uses a wiki. :-)
Another odd argument occurs in the same chapter and uses studies comparing students who became very good professional musicians, versus students who merely taught music, or "amateur" versus "professional" musicians. His conclusions from the studies? There really is no such thing as unusual talent. Professional musicians simply practiced more as children--about 10,000 hours as opposed to merely 8,000 hours. Even Mozart himself is now an exhibit in Gladwell's case--Gladwell says he only got "really" good after he had been composing 10,000 hours. (Checked his time sheets, I'm assuming.) So. There you are, kids. Wanna be a professional musician? All you have to do is practice 10,000 hours. Then you're a shoo-in.
Astonishingly, Gladwell simply does not even QUESTION the logical connections here. (Can you hear my 15yo yelling "Post hoc, ergo procter hoc"?) Could there be some other connection? Could children who show talent early come to love music even more and therefore practice even more? Um, Gladwell apparently never even considers it. I certainly did. I grew up good friends with a young man who now plays violin in an orchestra. He was good. He was ALWAYS good. He practiced a lot. I'm sure he got his magic 10,000 hours in. But he did it because of his terrific talent. I'm pretty sure if he'd been only "middling" during his childhood years, what happened next (and how much of his life he chose to devote to disciplined practice) might have been very different.
There were certainly sections of this book that were very interesting. However, I consider Gladwell's credibility to be so shot that I don't even know whether to believe what he writes or not. I was very interested in his conclusions about cultural factors and airline pilots and crashes. But here, as well, he asks few good questions. Earlier in the book, he makes a big deal that the Southern US has very different cultural expectations and turns out very different men than the North. For evidence, look at all the Appalachian blood feuds. :-) However, when reporting on cultural differences among pilots, he tells us that most Brazilians or Colombians or Koreans can be expected to behave in a certain way. Really? Southern vs. Northern US culture can turn out very different people, but Spanish/Portuguese heritage vs. indigenous peoples in Brazil or Colombia do not? They all have the same reactions to authority? How interesting.
OK. I could go on with this for a long time. If I had time or talent, I'd love to write the "Freedomnomics" to blast this "Freakanomics" out of the water. However, there is no such thing as talent, is there Gladwell, and I don't have 10,000 hours right now, so I guess I'm out of luck.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Michelle Umm, I can give you a quick preview, although I'm not done. I think he's entertaining, but his logic is so full of holes and his "evidence" so horribly cherry-picked that I think he has about zero credibility. So many people compared it to "Freakanomics" Well, that's fair. It's about as bad. :-) I only wish I still had all my stuff, all my accounts and studies and abstracts, for I would consider it one of the extreme pleasures in life to write an article shooting his arguments full of holes and exposing his "science" for what it is. :-) Someone needs to do to this book what "Freedomnomics" did to "Freakanomics"--which would be, totally discredit and destroy it. :-) Leave it be unless you and the kids get extreme delight in reading sections and exposing all the logical fallacies and criminal use of statistics and examples. Cade is loving it because he is enjoying being fifteen and being able to demolish the guy's logic. LOL

Darla Great points! Many of which we brought up in our book group a few weeks ago.

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