Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success (Sept-Dec 2009)

By Matt Dabbs

by Von Mitchell
September – December, 2009

Title: Outliers: The Story of Success
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Hardcover: 309 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.)
Language: English
ISBN: 9780316017923

What makes a successful person? Is it hard work? Extraordinary intelligence? Ambition? Talent? With the skill of a master storyteller, Malcolm Gladwell (previous bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink) captures your interest and delivers answers that just might shock you.

Gladwell delivers a spellbinding treatise about success and the way we think about it. Taking aim at those remarkable achievers who function outside the normal range of performance, Gladwell argues that no one becomes a success on their own. It takes a potent combination of factors, not the least of which is opportunity. Gladwell explores culture, class, family, and generation as other ingredients in the recipe of success, and he blows the lid off the notion of self-made somebodies.

Did you ever wonder who the best hockey players in Canada are? If you’re like me, you’ve never even thought about it, and therein lies some of Gladwell’s magic. He draws you into thinking and caring about topics that you may have previously been uninformed or indifferent about.

The best hockey players in Canada are born in the first three months of the year. That’s right. They’re born in January, February, and March, and before you start to wonder whether Gladwell’s on some astrological trip, he unwinds the facts with clear, focused logic.

The cutoff age for youth hockey in Canada is January 1. At the age of nine or ten, boys born in January will likely be playing against others born nearly a year later. The physical difference at that age is considerable. Then, all-star coaches select the older, more mature boys to practice and play an extended schedule, which could include 30 to 55 more games than those left “behind.” By the time all of these kids reach age thirteen or fourteen, there really is a marked difference between a kid born in January and one born in December. Thus, the greatest number of successful hockey players in Canada are born in the first quarter of the year.

This is just one of the many intriguing avenues that Gladwell takes you down as he explores the substance of success. Did you know the Beatles and Bill Gates have something in common? Both of them honed their skills with thousands of hours (10,000—Chapter 2) of practice before their big opportunity came. For the Beatles, it was the British musical invasion of the United States. For Bill Gates, it was the advent of the personal computer. In both cases, however, many formative years of practice prepared them to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that came along.

As Americans, we like success stories. We are accustomed to tales of the rugged individual who just outworks everyone en route to the top. We laud these stories and can hardly wait for the movie to come out. But Gladwell blows holes in such thinking. True, it takes an incredible amount of hard work to be a success, but what about all the other factors? Using a powerful analogy, Gladwell states, “[T]he tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured” (p. 19).

Did you know that fourteen of the seventy-five wealthiest people of all-time are Americans who were born within nine years of each other in the 1830s? How does a person explain that? Why are some bona fide geniuses struggling to get by in society? Why have South Korean pilots historically had so many plane crashes? Why do Asians excel at math? Again, Gladwell digs into these questions with his unique angle and intelligent use of research. The answers are far from obvious.

Possibly the most redemptive theme in the book is the value of meaningful work. Gladwell champions the merits of work that allow for autonomy, complexity, and a strong connection between effort and reward. I read an anonymous quote just yesterday that said, “We have been so concerned about giving our children what we didn’t have that we have neglected to give them what we did have.” The chapter in Outliers about Joe Flom and the descendants of Jewish immigrants clearly shows the relationship between first-generation toil and third-generation opportunity. Some people made sure their children got it all.

Overall, this was a fascinating book. Gladwell expanded my horizons and inspired me to consider all the opportunities that have made up the pathway of my life. It was a great read, and I would strongly recommend this book (as well as his previous two) to anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding and perspective of how our world works.New Wineskins

Van MitchellVon Mitchell hails from Cedaredge, Colorado: “I’ve been a high school business teacher and basketball coach for the better part of the last fourteen years. I’m also a freelance writer, poet, and songwriter. I’ve been married for seventeen years to my sweet wife, Marcia. I love to play guitar. I also love IN-N-OUT burgers. I’m blessed beyond belief. God has been so good to me.”

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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