Thursday, December 13, 2012

Reader's Diary #914- Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers


Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is an oddly fascinating, and brave, look at success. Who are these NHL stars, tycoons, and geniuses and why can't we all achieve the same level of greatness?

To read Gladwell's layman approach to statistics and to arrive at the same conclusions, we could make the point that we can, in fact, achieve the same level of greatness. That's not to say Gladwell offers inane new-age approaches— as in "you just have to believe you'll find success"— and this is not a self-help book.

For starters, Gladwell acknowledges that luck has been a factor in many success stories. Born in the right month, born in the right country, born during the right historical shift. He also acknowledges that culture plays a role. He also acknowledges that there needs to be a lot of hard work. So far this information (and it's really a near complete summary of the book), probably seems like a lot of common sense. So why is it fascinating? Gladwell has a knack of picking the right examples—individuals, events, numbers— to back up his point. Are there counter examples out there that suggest Gladwell's conclusions are sometimes too simplistic? Sure, but he certainly makes a strong case for sociology.

Personally, I'd have liked a bit more from the psychology side of things. Where does motivation fit in? For instance, in a piece about a particular school in New York aimed at impoverished youth, Gladwell makes the case that the longer hours, longer school year, and extensive homework has led to the success of the students, proving that with the right opportunities, differences between economic classes and school success need not exist. Well, sure, but what he doesn't elaborate on is the fact that the students and/or their families still needed to want those opportunities and to take advantage of them. Jumping to the conclusion that longer school years, longer hours, and more homework would mean everyone would be more successful isn't necessarily accurate. He mentions in passing that the school accepts students on a lottery type system. This suggests that the parents who applied to the school valued the education being offered. Changing all the schools to this format, and having the same laws in place that everyone of a certain age must go to school, I'd expect the success rate to be much lower than the New York school in question. Higher than it is under the current system? Possibly, but Gladwell's evidence is circumstantial at best. The kids whose parents allow them to skip school, the kids who have to go home to take care of their siblings and have no time left for homework; these kids wouldn't just disappear.

That's to say Gladwell's approach isn't always balanced. But it's still an interesting read, with plenty of food for thought. Perhaps its biggest asset is that he's not afraid to take on sensitive topics. Ethnicity and stereotypes are brought into the forefront with an unusual lack of constrain. He makes a very strong case that we've not been doing anyone any favours by pretending that we're all the same.

Outliers, though it uses personal examples, is for better or worse, big picture stuff. There's an optimism just below the surface, but it's not peddled as a bunch of easy answers. It's not a difficult read but it does make you think.

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