'Outliers: The Story of Success,' by Malcolm Gladwell
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Malcolm Gladwell is a journalistic outlier.
Other writers translate psychological studies into turgid prose. Gladwell turns them into engaging narratives that upend conventional wisdom, earning him legions of adoring fans and groupies who call his ideas "Gladwellian."
First came his huge best-seller "The Tipping Point." Then "Blink."
And now here is "Outliers," a riveting collection of essays and stories about the highest achievers in society. Gladwell debunks the notion of the self-made man, arguing against the storyline we have been spoon-fed since childhood -- the Horatio Alger figure, toiling against all odds to greatness.
Little, Brown ($27.99)
Gladwell asserts that there is more than raw genius and hard work behind extraordinary success. Other factors come into play -- from birth date to ancestry to merely being in the right place at the right time. Sure, some of this is not stop-the-presses news. But he writes an utterly readable collection of essays on outliers ranging from Bill Gates to The Beatles to Robert Oppenheimer.
He examines great Canadian hockey players and finds that a disproportionate number were born in January, February and March, soon after the Jan. 1 cutoff for eligibility in elite junior leagues. The boys born in the beginning of the year were bigger and more developmentally advanced than the ones born in October and November.
Due to an accident of birth, they were viewed as the most gifted and got the most attention, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
(Gladwell, however, conveniently ignores players that do not fit that theory -- Mario Lemieux was born in October while Sidney Crosby, another outlier, has an August birthday.)
He also tells the standard story of Gates: the Harvard dropout who became a gifted programmer and turned himself into one of the richest men in history through hard work and genius.
Wait, says Gladwell. It's a little more complicated than that. Because Gates attended a wealthy private school in Seattle, he had an extraordinary opportunity when the mothers formed a computer club and bought a sophisticated computer, giving him early access to the burgeoning technology.
Sure, he was brilliant and plucky, but he got to spend hundreds of more hours of computer time than his peers. Gladwell even devises a 10,000-hour rule. That's the amount of time it takes to succeed in a given field. Relentless practice -- roughly 20 hours a week for 10 years -- is more important than raw talent, he argues.
Sure, The Beatles were extraordinarily talented musicians, but they honed their talents in the early 1960s because they were repeatedly invited to perform in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany, performing five or more hours a night. That rigorous performing schedule gave them their edge.
The most poignant and saddest chapter of the book is the story of the world's greatest underachiever, Christopher Langan, a man with an IQ of 195 who dropped out of college and ended up on a farm in rural Missouri, unknown and unpublished. He grew up in a poor dysfunctional family and had to go it alone. Gladwell contrasts this sad story to the success of Oppenheimer, the physicist who grew up in privilege where he learned how to make his way in the world.
We can all feel a bit smarter after Gladwell deconstructs the myth of genius.
First Published December 21, 2008 12:00 am