Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Outliers

The latest book from Malcolm Gladwell--who's first book, The Tipping Point, is absolutely fascinating and worth going to Amazon.com to purchase right now--looks at the concept of success. There are people Gladwell calls "outliers," people who stand head and shoulders above the rest of us in terms of achievement and impact in our world. People like Bill Gates, The Beatles, the top law firm in New York, and numerous others. Gladwell asks us to rethink the way people become successful. 

Our traditional American view is that we become successful through hard work and innate ability. By pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we can be anything we want to be. And Gladwell doesn't disagree with this premise; he simply goes deeper into why this might be true. Hard work and natural talent can lead to success, but there are more factors working here. Gladwell points out that the culture surrounding a person plays just as much a role as work ethic. Not only culture, but opportunity--even just a bit of luck--is a significant factor. It doesn't matter as much how smart we are, but how and where we were raised (Having a computer lab in high school in the late 70s created Bill Gates). It doesn't matter as much about our athletic ability as it does what month we were born (January is best for Canadian hockey players). To quote Gladwell,
It is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities--and who had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
I love Gladwell's anecdotal style of writing. Each chapter tells a fascinating story about real people and situations that shed light on a facet of his overarching thesis. I also love the connections he finds; the man has a gift for figuring out the underlying factors in everyday life, the why behind the what. We know that practice makes perfect, but how much practice? We know that opportunity knocks, but when it knocks in history is incredibly important. We know that how we grew up is a factor, but how do past generations define our success? Cultural legacy, special opportunities, and a few thousands hours of practice can make all the difference. While this book has less immediate practicality than his previous books, it's an extremely well-written and insightful book that will make you rethink the cultural legacies you're creating.

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