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Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell

What I love about Outliers is how Malcom Gladwell leads the reader from the usual portrayal of success and successful people and takes us to a perspective which is much broader and deeper.

Outliers goes beyond assuming that success is just about the best, the brightest and the self-made.  It shows the even radically successful had much good fortune along the way. He quotes Bill Gates as saying, “I was very lucky.”. Malcom Gladwell points out that nobody succeeds on their own and that behind every story of individual success there are many factors such as supportive parents, inspired teachers, enlightened mentors and just plain good luck – which all helped.

Outliers looks at success from the wider perspective of society and culture and how these influence our capacity to succeed. He points out that success in many sports depends on birth date in relation to the cutoff date for selection. A sport may have, say, a cut off date of 1st September whereby boys who are under 10 years are given a chance to test their skills and be rewarded with extra in-depth training. Depending on the date of birth a boy may be up to 12 months older than the other boys who are being tested.

Those 12 months can make a huge difference at that age. The boys who have had the extra months to develop will almost invariably do better in the tests as they will be bigger, stronger and better co-ordinated. They will win the chance for the better training and will develop more quickly and achieve greater success. But owing to age distortions this is largely due the better training not their inherent skill. This creates a roll on effect, year after year, which is mostly depended simply on the date of birth and the cutoff date used to make the initial decision during the formative years of the child.

Outliers uses the birth dates of successful Ice Hockey players to show that they mostly tend to be born within about three months of each other. This is because those three months are the months which give them the most edge age-wise over other potential players when they were initially selected for extra training.

Intellectual skills and emotional development are also dependent on age. The cut-off dates for tests to find the ‘brightest and the best’ will hugely influence the results whether physical skills, social skills or intelligence is being tested.

In effect we set up many kids to win or lose, to be successes or to be failures by the arbitrary effect of cutoff dates. Of course, some children will overcome early handicaps or lack of opportunity but these will be rare exceptions. Once we label a child as not good at something it tends to stick. Besides they could see with their own eyes that others did much better than them. They did not know that is was simply because they were ‘older’ – even though they were theoretically the same age.

Outliers also points out that success also has a lot to do with putting in the 10,000 hours it takes to get really good at something. Whether it was the Beatles in Hamburg spending up to 8 hours every night playing to a live audience, or Bill Gates getting masses of free time on a computer terminal when such access were very expensive and very rare. People who become successes are usually those who had the opportunity to put in their 10,000 hours and then have the chance at some point to use what they learned to great effect.

Outliers also points out that learning in schools for different economic groups is fairly equal when averaged out. However, learning at home is minimal or absent in poor families but abundant in well-off families. It is learning that home which often give kids from well-off families the edge. Partly what kids from well-off  families learn is a sense of entitlement which helps them negotiate what they want from those in authority rather than just putting up with, or rebelling against, authority like those from poorer familites.

“Superstar lawyers, and math whizzes, and software entrepreneurs all seem to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded on a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”

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