Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

OutliersOutliers: The Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in a fresh look at how people succeed. He takes direct aim at the American cultural myth of the "self-made man" (or woman), insisting that those who attain great success are building on the skills, support and successes of the family or cultural background from which they emerge. This takes nothing away from the choices the successful person makes that help her reach lofty goals, such as hard work, study and preparation, and creative innovation.

Gladwell also questions the prevailing belief that personal factors such as intelligence and talent are the primary sources of success. He points to several converging lines of research that indicate a threshold investment of 10,000 hours being necessary for mastery of any complex skill, whether computer programming, playing a musical instrument, snowboarding, writing fiction or many other professional endeavors. It simply takes that kind of commitment to be really good at something. He cites well-known examples like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy -- all of whom were lucky enough to be given access to computers and programming skills while adolescents, and who devoted themselves to mastering the new skills that laid the foundation for the personal computer revolution and the Internet.

Outliers is filled with fascinating stories as well as Gladwell's interesting take on social science research. As a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, his prose is predictably smooth and informative. The examples mentioned below are only several of the many which fill this compelling book.

Many Asian-American children and adults have distinguished themselves in the fields of science and mathematics. Gladwell looks into this phenomenon and discards the conventional wisdom that they perhaps possess some kind of math "gene" that the rest of us missed out on. Instead, he looks to the cultural heritage of the Han Chinese in particular, and points out several interesting factors.

Research shows that Chinese speakers are more successful in remembering random digits, a skill related to math proficiency. Upon investigation it appears that this is not related to some structural differences in Chinese brains, but to the fact that short-term memory is "full" after about two seconds. And, in Chinese, the names for the digits are all 1-syllable words, where English has "fo-ur," "ze-ro" and "sev-en." Chinese speakers are simply able to pronounce the names of their digits more efficiently than English speakers.

The Chinese language also simplifies mathematical processes by systematizing how multidigit numbers are denoted in speech. In Chinese, twenty-one is "two-tens-one" and thirty-seven is "three-tens-seven". This simplifies the cognitive processing required to do mental calculations. In English, twenty-one must be translated into "21" and thirty-seven to "37" before any mental calculations can be done. (It gets worse: English speakers have to memorize a series of non-standard names for the all-important numbers ending in zero. While sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety follow a predictable pattern (name of the number of tens + "ty", the names for ten, twenty, thirty, forty and fifty, are each differently discrepant from the pattern. Kids must memorize these number names, and remember how to translate them before doing any mental operation with the number.) Native Chinese speakers have a mathematical advantage, at least as far as doing mental math. Chinese children easily count to higher numbers earlier than do English-speaking children.

Cultures differ in the amount of time children are in school. In the U.S., children are in school an average of 180 days per calendar year. Children in South Korea attend school 220 days per year, while Japanese schoolchildren study for 243 days each year. Innovative approaches to inner-city education such as the KIPP Academy in the Bronx are extending the school year as well as lengthening the school day for students, with impressive results.

Outliers describes the multifaceted reality of success: we are each dealt a hand of cards with respect to our genetic endowment, family environment, and cultural heritage. And though each of these factors can contribute to the success of an individual, the variable that accounts for the largest part of the success picture is -- hard work.

Luck also plays a significant role -- both good luck and bad luck. A number of Jewish men born in New York in the early 1930's to immigrant parents, who valued education, went on to law school and began their careers. But high profile NY law firms were WASPish, and these young Jewish lawyers found doors closed to them. So they banded together and began their own firms. The white-glove WASP firms didn't touch merger and acquisition work, but the up and coming Jewish firms were eager to do so. It was the luck of timing that in the early 1980's these men were in their fifties, experienced and well-established, that the SEC rules changed and the boom in mergers and acquisitions made them wealthy beyond their wildest imaginings. Note that it was the "bad luck" of being shut out of WASP firms that the Jewish lawyers turned into "good luck" by dint of their hard work and persistence.

Gladwell emphasizes that no one succeeds alone. The American myth of the poor boy who becomes wealthy solely through his hard work, is only half the tale. Every poor boy (or girl) who becomes successful certainly has worked very hard; but they've also been lucky with timing and opportunity; they've had mentors and associates and families and communities that have provided support and guidance.

Outliers is a thought-provoking book that gives the reader a broader perspective with which to look at success. An unintended byproduct of this may be the reader's increasing awareness of his or her relative "unluckiness" with respect to accident of birth, geography or timing. Yet Gladwell's own story, with which he closes the book, shows how luck and unluck are always mixed: he is the descendant of slaves in Jamaica, and his family valued education and hard work. Maybe, in the end, we make our own luck.