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Outliers

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Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell2008
Finished June 10, 2012

I remember years ago reading an article about Malcolm Gladwell in the local newspaper, as he had grown up in the small, nearby community of Elmira, in my own school district. His name came up again years later when, due to an inside joke about putting ivory soap in microwaves (everyone should try this at least once), a friend directed me to a section at the end of The Tipping Point where Gladwell discusses how one can identify the “soap Mavens” of the world as those who would bother to telephone the Ivory Soap Hotline with queries.

…I mean who does that. Really.

I eventually acquired a copy of Blink which didn’t fit in my luggage to Japan, but thanks to Kathie, who lent me Outliers, I’ve finally been able to make good on my intentions to check this New York Times bestselling author off my list. I don’t read non-fiction very often; it’s not that there aren’t an array of interesting titles I would like, in theory, to read; it’s just that I really miss fiction whenever I do. Fortunately Gladwell’s writing includes lots of storytelling as well as sociological and psychological theory.

Outliers is all about success. Gladwell breaks down the most common misconceptions we have about successful people. Mainly, the belief that the world’s geniuses and success stories are just “special”, and their achievements are a direct result of their unique merit combined with hard work. Gladwell relates chapter upon chapter of individual success stories, digging deeper to find that in their histories, all of them really have a lot more in common: being born at the right time (even down to specific years for successes in certain fields), the incredible advantage of opportunities that gave them a step up (did you know that by a series of happy coincidences Bill Gates was the ONLY child in the world in 1968 to have virtually unlimited access to a time-sharing computer terminal?), and even cultural and ethnic traits that have profound effects on opportunity and performance.

I was especially fascinated by two chapters particularly relevant to my current situation. The relationship between Korean plane crashes and linguistic expression made sense of some of the behaviours I notice in Japanese conversation as well, such as highly mitigated speech, a difficult thing to navigate for a Canadian who’s used to more straightforward directions. If you’re at all interested in sociolinguistics, you won’t regret at least reading this section.

In another chapter, the depiction of the rice paddy as a place for where meaningful work becomes culturally embedded, and its contrast with many western peasant societies (where there was little incentive for peasants to put extra time into their work beyond what their landlord required) is striking in its similarities to the working behaviours I’ve noticed in Japan compared to those in Canada, the USA, etc. Now when I see the rice paddies as I drive to work each day, I can see even more of the artistry involved in cultivating them – the perfect water levels, the careful planting of the rows, and the many hundreds of years of hard work that have gone into perfecting and preserving not only this culturally significant industry but also the values that grew from it.

Gladwell’s writing is refreshingly informal. He’s smart, but writes in a way that makes you forget his brilliance, because all of the arguments, evidence and conclusions just flow naturally, leaving you simultaneously surprised at the results he brings forth and wondering, if it’s so simple, how you did not know it all along. The stories and connections between success and opportunites set up by our world are fascinating, and give the most unexpected but logical explanations for all kinds of seemingly illogical patterns. Why are students of Asian backgrounds so good at math? Why are violent feuds between families so disproportionately common in Appalachia? Why are an overwhelming majority of NHL hockey players born in January, February and March? How strong of a role do society and culture play in determining future behaviours and advantages? It’s a pretty humbling take on success, especially if you have high aspirations and really believe that if you just stick to it and work hard enough, you WILL someday achieve them. Perhaps…it’s not that simple.

That’s where I felt this book was lacking a little; it’s all so simple, I’m left wondering if there is more to the stories presented. Or more that could be done to change this. Gladwell identifies problems in our thinking and behaviour as a society that allow such a small percentage the opportunity to succeed, while failing to acknowledge that we have privileged some while explicitly hindering many others. “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success…with a society that provides opportunities for all” (pg. 314). Idealistic? Probably. This book would have been stronger had it entertained more of a discussion for how our world might tangibly change to allow more widespread opportunity. But I still think it’s worthy of a 4 out of 5.

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