Review: Outliers

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Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

OutliersEver wondered how exactly someone becomes world class at something? What exactly does it take to go from being ordinary at something to attaining great heights? Is it talent or a huge amount of persistence?

Outliers (subtitled The Story of Success) by Malcolm Gladwell takes on those very questions. Most people tend to attribute great success to a mix of talent and ambition, but Gladwell argues that the truth path to success really doesn’t rely on either one of these factors, but instead relies o a pretty sizable collection of other factors.

Before I even started reading this book, I was aware of the chief criticisms of it: that it was mostly just a survey of literature on this topic and that it didn’t really bring a whole lot of new ideas to the table. What I actually found when I read the book for myself is that it was a pretty interesting synthesis of a lot of ideas on success, and that Gladwell has a knack for making some of the mundane pieces of the picture quite interesting. In short, I found the book fascinating, and I also found it to be a great starting place for additional reading.

Interested? Let’s dig in and see what Gladwell has to say about Outliers.

Digging Deep Into Outliers

One: The Matthew Effect
Gladwell opens the book with an examination of what it takes to be a top athlete in the prep leagues of various sports, and he discovers an interesting correlation: most of the players who make top-level prep teams (“all star” teams) tend to have birthdays within a month or two of each other. For example, over half of the players that performed well in junior hockey in Canada have birthdays that fall in January, February, or March. In other words, the players that have been selected purely by merit as the best hockey players are strongly predisposed to having birthdays in those first three months of the year, with January being the dominant one. Why? January 1 is the cut-off date for junior hockey, which means that children with birthdays early in the year have a big size and maturity advantage over kids with birthdays later in the year. Imagine a child born on January 1, 2000 competing against a child born on December 15, 2000 – the first child has almost a year’s worth of maturity advantage, which can more than make up for an actual skill advantage. Eventually, over time, the more mature children are selected as having “potential” and thus receive more coaching, which actually does make them better.

Two: The 10,000 Hour Rule
Here, Gladwell continues with the birthdate theme, but argues that sometimes the year is important. Gladwell gives two examples: the generation of “robber barons” (Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and so on) who were all born in the 1830s, and the generation of computer entrepreneurs (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and so on) who were all born in the 1950s. Sometimes, it requires being born in a certain period to have the opportunity for exceptionalism.

The more important (and interesting) part of the chapter, though, discusses the huge role that nearly-obsessive practice plays in making people great. Gladwell uses The Beatles and Bill Gates as examples here, showing how they both were able to take advantage of stupendous amounts of practice time to become very, very good at what they did. In each case, Gladwell estimated that it took 10,000 hours of practice for those individuals to hone their natural raw talents and become world class – roughly ten years of multiple hours of practice (3 or so on average) every single day. Gladwell offers many other examples of how this practice pays off, but that magic number of 10,000 hours pops up again and again.

Three: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part I
Shouldn’t IQ be a strong indicator of success in life? It turns out that IQ is only a minor indicator of success – people who are successful often have a higher-than-average IQ, but IQ alone is not a predictor of success. Gladwell demonstrates this using several different angles, but perhaps the most stark was his example of a creative test given to two children. It turned out that the one who had scored higher on an IQ test was actually significantly less creative than the other child – the high-IQ child gave functionally correct answers, but they didn’t possess that spark of creativity that the answers from the other child provided. In other words, IQ is just one small piece of the puzzle for success – a high IQ is not necessary to succeed, though there may be a minimum IQ threshold for success.

Four: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part II
In fact, there are two factors that seem to be as big (or bigger) than IQ in determining whether someone will be successful or not. The first is parenting – what kind of culture is the child raised in? A home where a child is encouraged to learn for themselves, develop an independent and questioning and creative nature, and receive support in this growth is far more likely to see adult success than a child without this. A second major factor discussed here is social skills: does a person interact well with others? Are they able to convince others to see things their way? Gladwell seems to make the case that these factors in conjunction with creativity and at least an average IQ (though having an above-average one helps) are big keys to success.

Five: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom
Gladwell applies some of the lessons of the first four chapters here in a review of the life of Joe Flom, who built the law firm of Skaaden, Arps into one of the largest in the world. Gladwell ignored intelligence and personality and focused instead on other aspects of Flom’s growth: the Jewish culture he grew up in, pure demographic luck (meaning he was born at the right time in the right social situation), and the work ethic instilled by having entrepreneurial parents who worked hard and used their minds to succeed. In other words, Flom had a culture, an opportunity, and an example of success in his life.

Six: Harlan, Kentucky
Harlan, Kentucky has an extensive (and rather violent) history that revolves deeply around individual and familial pride. Gladwell brings it up here because one can actually see the cultural heritage of Harlan (and many other nearby towns) in the residents that live there today. In other words, the culture of Harlan that has persisted since the 1800s is still apparent in the area today and still affects the personality growth and demeanor of people who grow up in that culture. From this, Gladwell concludes that many people are, in ways both mundane and surprising, products of the environment and culture they grew up in.

Seven: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes
Gladwell offers up an intertwined set of stories about plane crashes and how crews handle them to illustrate how cultural norms can change how exactly people handle stressful or challenging situations. In the primary example, Gladwell looks at submissiveness in Korean culture and how it created a dangerous series of situations on Korean Air flights, mostly because Korean Air adopted the norms of Korean culture. This resulted in individuals on the flight crew being more submissive than they should be, and this submissiveness resulted in a poor safety record for Korean Air. It took cultural reforms within the business to change this, resulting in Korean Air becoming one of the safest airlines.

Eight: Rice Paddies and Math Tests
What about the cultural idea that people from Asian cultures are better at math? There are actually several cultural reasons for this, which Gladwell discusses at length. The most memorable for me was that Chinese uses very short syllables for numbers, enabling students to save more numbers in their short term memory than students from other languages and cultures. Not only does this make some basic mathematics easier for Chinese students, it also means that their mathematical education can move faster, resulting in more and stronger coverage of basic mathematical concepts.

Nine: Marita’s Bargain
Here, one observation stood out above all the rest, and it really tells the entire story of this chapter. Over summer vacation, students from poor or middle-income backgrounds tend to stay the same or actually slightly regress in terms of their reading skills. Students from upper-income backgrounds, however, continue to grow in their skills at a rate roughly equal to continued schooling during vacation. The result? After several years, there’s a genuine achievement gap between low income children and high income children. The difference? During the summer, the high-income children are pushed to read, learn, and grow. Their culture at home is about learning, and because it’s a cultural norm, it’s a part of their everyday life.

Some Thoughts on Outliers
Here are three things I think I think about Outliers.

Focus is the key. The big lesson I took from Outliers was that consistent practice over a long period pays off. It takes a lot of practice to become great at something – but if you want to leave your mark and truly become an outlier, you need to start cracking. Three hours a day for ten years should do the trick.

Culture makes the focus easier. If you’re raised in a culture that rewards focus on a particular area, whether it’s just the culture in your home or it’s the larger culture of your community, you’re more likely to actually become great at something. Surround yourself with individuals and situations that encourage you to constantly strive to improve yourself.

Sometimes, it’s simply luck. You might have every tool you need for success, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Sometimes the greater culture simply opens the window – or it closes it. The best thing you can do is simply collect the tools – surround yourself with good people, practice your skills faithfully, and seek out opportunities.

Is Outliers Worth Reading?
Gladwell is an excellent writer, no doubt. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end and would unquestionably recommend it to virtually anyone who has an interest in the basic topic of success.

While there were not many “take away” lessons from the book, it did inform me in three ways as to how I could make changes in my own life: raise my children in an environment that encourages learning and creativity, figure out what I’m passionate about and practice it intensely, and continually surround myself with supportive people.

Outliers is well worth reading as a starting point on success – it’s easy to pick up and enjoyable. I look forward to following up with some books from the extensive reading list provided at the back of the book. Add this one to your Christmas list or request it at your local library.

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32 thoughts on “Review: Outliers

  1. I find the Korean example to be very, very interesting. Our philosophy affects everything we do in life, and our culture is simply a kind of “collective” philosophy. I’d like to see some kind of a survey of the typical earnings of people who follow certain ideologies/religions.

    That’d be pretty cool.

  2. I find the Chinese number theory utter crap. Working memory is limited to 5-7 objects, no matter what your IQ, no matter what your brain-space. Unless you’re one of those mnemonic geniuses or have some of the lesser-known autistic spectrum disorders, it is simply not possible to retain more than around 5-7 items in one’s short-term working memory.

    I suspect that, like most people, most of what he describes as “innate math ability” is simply the ability to do mental arithmetic–which is something that can be trained, by hours and hours and hours of practice. Sans calculator. This was how I spent my summer vacations when I was in grade school…

  3. Excellent review, Trent. I have to admit, I was one of the ones who heard “that it was mostly just a survey of literature on this topic and that it didn’t really bring a whole lot of new ideas to the table,” so I dismissed this book. It sounds like I short-changed myself.

    On the subject of practice for 10,000 hours…I remember hearing George Brett say he practiced baseball everyday for nine years just to get to the major leagues. I also heard Tom Selleck say it took him 11 years to become an “overnight success.”

    I think they were onto something.

    Thanks for the quality review. It certainly changed my thinking.

  4. As a musician I can attest to the number of hours one must practice to become great. And in the long run it isn’t the people who were necessarily the most gifted starting out who are the best performers today- it’s mostly those who kept on practicing, or stuck with it, who are the most successful musicians now. I remember being amazed that some of my friends and competitors would one day just up and quit being a musician- they were so talented- but they chose to do something else with their lives. Talent helps, but it’s your own determination, to always keep going and improve your skills that lead to great success in your chosen field (plus luck and the situation you’re in). I have a feeling that my talented friends who quit music earlier than I did are still successful in life, because they know the value of staying focused- they just aren’t professional musicians. And for that matter, neither am I, for the same reason. That’s just how I see it, so most of the conclusions in this book make sense to me. I heard a review of this book on NPR not long ago, so I’m very happy to read another review of it on TSD!

  5. I think the 10,000 hours theory is pretty compelling, and I can relate it to my own life.

    I’m really great at only one thing: cooking. I worked professionally as a chef and baker. I went to culinary school, and in fairly short order after I got out, I forgot more about cooking than most people ever know. But I’ve spent those 10,000 hours, or more, cooking. And I know I’m a better cook now than I was when I was fresh out of school and could rattle off a ton of memorized definitions, ingredient lists, and culinary factoids. It’s the *practice* that’s made me a great cook, not an inborn gift, not a family culture, or superior education.

    Of course when you practice something you deeply enjoy, 10,000 hours in 10 years doesn’t seem onerous at all.

  6. Rather than the number of syllables, I think it’s the way the numbers are said that makes learning basic math in Asian languages easier. For example, in Japanese 10-19 are literally “ten-(number)”, 20 is “two ten” and so on. This helps you skip a step when you’re first learning, because you don’t have to convert the word to the number. This is something you don’t really think about as an adult, but it’s a big deal for kids.

    As an experiment friend of mine taught two groups of elementary school children basic mathematics, using normal English words with one group, and literally saying “ten-one” for eleven, etc. with the other group. The second group had to spend no time memorizing numbers, and took much less time to learn compound addition and subtraction than the first.

    Of course, the amount of repetition and focus in Asian school systems probably helps as well. But that doesn’t mean you should completely discount language as a factor.

  7. Great review Trent, as always!

    “but instead relies o a pretty sizable collection of other factors.”

    I think that should be “relies on a pretty…”

    …Lisa

  8. I’m a big non-fiction reader and usually read 2-3 books at a time. But this was the first book in about 6 months that I read solely from start to finish without picking up another book. It just captured me. Its clear Gladwell isn’t a master researcher, but he’s a great writer and the book is just plain interesting. It also helps to explain why I’m not a gazillionaire yet, I was born at the wrong time ;)

  9. As far as Asians and math goes, I would point to three reasons this might be true:

    First, Asian schools still practice the old fashioned art of drills. You have to know your multiplication tables, cold, so you don’t have to worry about the basic calculations when you’re working with higher math. I was furious when my son’s fourth grade teacher required her students to buy calculators!

    Second, Asian parents push their children very hard in their academics. My Japanese exchange sister and all her classmates went to “cram school” for three hours after school every day, and Saturday mornings, when our kids would be doing sports or other activities. They practiced and practiced and practiced to be prepared to take the examinations that select which students get to go to high school and on to college, and which students are sent from 9th grade to trade school. You only get one shot at that test. (Which is another reason it’s not fair to compare American high school students overall to students where high school is competitive, as in Asian and Europe. We’re not comparing apples to apples, because we send everyone to high school.

    Third, in Japan, at least, the school year is 220 days and the American school year is 180 days. Over twelve years of school, that amounts to about another year of instruction, as well as shorter summers to forget things in.

    I’m not necessarily saying their way is better. They learn a lot and memorize huge quantities of information, but it is arguable that American youth have more opportunities to develop creativity, because they aren’t studying so hard. I still insisted my son drill on his math facts at home, though.

  10. I saw this guy on TV and was curious about the book. Thanks for the review! It was very interesting.

  11. Thanks for the review. The content reminds me a bit of Freakonomics. Based on your review, I’m going to buy this book for my mom for Christmas. She’s a teacher and it sounds like there is some interesting research in the book that relates to the interdependencies between education, home life, and ultimately, success.

  12. Excellent review.

    In your three take aways, you say, “raise my children in an environment that encourages learning and creativity” – This is why homeschooling is so successful.

  13. While sbt’s comment on the educational system in certain Asian countries is a large part of why we perceive Asian students to be so much more academically successful, there is another aspect to math that should be brought up.

    That is, why aren’t we all brilliant in math?

    Math has ten numbers, 0 through 9 that are combined in a strict pattern. Math rules are totally regular and can be expressed in formulas.

    In contrast, the English language has 26 letters, some of which have the same sound, others of which can sound different when they appear twice in the same word (i.e. the “g”s in “garage”), silent letters, dipthongs, homonyms, irregular verbs, etc. In particular, the “ough” letter combination is pronounced differently in the words through, though, plough and trough. Yet my 5 year old speaks English quite fluently!

    So why do we generally have so much trouble with math? It really should be as easy as falling off a log, at least compared to speaking English (never mind spelling it).

  14. Great thorough review – I don’t know if I’m now tantalised to read the book or whether you’ve already told me the punchline and I don’t need to read it.

  15. @ Shevy While no expert at the subject I believe math is difficult for two primary reasons. First because it deals with abstract issues, particularly as you go higher in grade levels. Secondly it isn’t actually necessary for survival whereas communication is (speaking and understanding) and we are genetically geared towards learning it.

    Also, you’re mixing up reading and writing with speaking and understanding and then compairing it to learning math. Learning to read and write, even at a basic level, is not particularly easy and takes plenty of time and practice as well (which you will soon learn with your five year old :-). Even ripping off this short note is an example of likely grammatical and spelling mistakes, which most folks overlook since we “get” the intent and the point of the communication and it’s really not worth our time to point out others errors on a blog comment.

  16. Dear Trent,

    Two of your articles are posted in today’s online webportal @ WSJ personal finance section toward bottom right section.

  17. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/view.html

    Trent, you should check out this Frontline documentary if you’re interested in how culture and society affects success. :) It’s a doc on an experiment a teacher did it her students in which she had one group of kids assigned as the “better group” and another group as the underdogs. It’s crazy to see how fast their behaviors change. More surprisingly is how adults acted in the same experiment.

  18. What shone through was Aristotle’s conclusion that good birth determines the quality of a person more than anything else.

  19. Very good review. On the subject of 10000 hours, this article is more interesting and lots motivating:
    http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/10/30/8391794/index.htm

    –snip–
    Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work…
    Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends….
    Many great athletes are legendary for the brutal discipline of their practice routines….

    –snip–

  20. It was really interesting how Gladwell’s Tipping Point did exactly what it said on the tin, and went from being an underground book to absolutely everywhere, overnight.

    In contrast, my big joke with Blink was I read the back cover and knew all I needed to know. (Okay, it’s a geeky joke!)

    Did Gladwell cover himself in the book? He’s quite an outlier himself these days…

  21. Great review Trent!

    I went to college with many people from the greater Harlan area… it is a very different society and was an eye opening change from suburban Cleveland / Akron area.

    I didn’t realize that flush toilets were still a sign of wealth or that methane in a water supply could be seen as just the cost of living with an oil well in the back yard that taps through the water supply.

    I try and remember the people and conditions everywhere I go.

  22. I have just finished this book and found it to be riveting (but then I like all Gladwell’s books). Gladwell really has a way of making a topic interesting and understandable and I completely agree with him as to the idea of 10,000 hours making the difference between good and great. I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger and my sister and i were the only ones on our swim team who bothered to get up and train every weekday morning and come in early for evening practice to do weights. We spent a lot of hours reading mind-body materials etc and just were totally consumed by swimming. Out of our swimming club, we were the only ones to be awarded substantial swimming scholarships to university.
    And we did this from England — unusual.

    But like Gladwell writes, it wasn’t because we were stupendous. We just had a combination of things – supportive parents, enough money to travel, a good coach, some talent and a lot of hard work.

    I am going to see how I can get my 10,000 hours in on something else now -

  23. The 10,000 thing is well documented. In classical music that’s approximately the amount of time that you’d have practiced once you’d finished your masters degree at a specialist music college – professional level, not genius level.

  24. I read and thoroughly enjoyed this book a few weeks ago.The real takeaway from this book is that success nearly always requires a lot of help in addition to serious quantities of hard work and luck (being born in the right time and place to take advantage of opportunities).

  25. Coming from a low-income family, I can certainly identify with the concept of ‘falling behind’
    While I did very well in school, we couldn’t afford to be involved in sports or all those cool summer programs, so I was really behind socially by the time I turned 19 – this definitely affected my early ‘success’ in life.
    To overcome it, I’ve simply had to work harder and got give up.

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