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Outliers: The Story of Success – Book Review

by Malcolm Gladwell., New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2008. 285 pages.
Reviewed by Diane Byington, Ph.D.

outliersAre you as tired of thinking about the dire economy, war casualties, and the oil spill as I am? Do you want to read something that is somewhat related to work, but easy and fun, and you won’t feel guilty about spending the time? If so, then I recommend anything by Malcolm Gladwell. This writer has an amazing ability to find patterns out of things that others miss, and his writing is entertaining and stimulating. He’s the guy who brought us the concept of the “tipping point,” which describes the point at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable. He’s written several books, all million sellers, and I chose to read Outliers for this review.

An outlier, according to Gladwell, is something that is markedly different in value from others in a statistical sample. He primarily focuses on the stories of people who have had great success, including Bill Gates. Gladwell looks underneath the stories to find that success is partially about individual striving, but it also includes luck, taking advantage of opportunities that are denied to others, talent and smarts, and lots and lots of practice.

Luck. Nearly all Canadian professional hockey players have birthdays in the first part of the year, particularly January – March. That’s because kids are assigned to leagues by the calendar year of their birth, and kids who were born in the early part of the year have an advantage when they are young because of developmental differences. A few months makes a big difference when you are six. The kids who excel are picked for elite teams, and these kids end up as professionals. So, if you were unlucky enough to have a birthday in November, you probably shouldn’t plan on being a professional hockey player.

Opportunities. Bill Gates was born in 1955, along with Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley titans, and they grew up with computers. Bill Gates was exposed to opportunities that others didn’t have, such as access to computer terminals and programming instruction from the time he was in middle school in 1968. Of course, he made the most of every opportunity, but what if his opportunities had been in some other area, such as working on car engines? He might have invented a solar powered car instead of Microsoft.

Talent, Smarts, and Practice. Gladwell writes about the 10,000 rule, which states that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. You have to have a threshold amount of intellect and talent, but mostly you have to practice, practice, practice. So, people who are very successful are the ones who have put in the hours, practicing. The threshold level of intelligence and talent is much lower than most people think. For example, an IQ above 120 doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.

In our field, this means that management and leadership skills can be learned – most everyone has the threshold level of talent and smarts – and these will pay off if you get feedback and practice, practice, practice those skills. Ten thousand hours or practice, over ten years, translates to about 20 hours of practice each week. Of course, if you are lucky enough to find a great mentor, for example, or have available a variety of opportunities to develop as a leader, such as regular 360 feedback, then your practice is going to pay off more quickly and easily, and you might even develop into a world-class manager or leader. One of the messages of the book is that training and practice are crucial to success.

There’s a lot more to this book that I won’t go into depth about here. For example, why do poor kids do worse in school than rich kids? They don’t. It’s just that poor kids lose more during the summers, because their parents don’t give them books to read during the summers. Another example: why did Korean Airlines have so many accidents at one time in its history? Because the Korean culture and language didn’t encourage copilots to speak up when they had concerns, and sometimes the pilots made mistakes. The way out of this quandary was to teach flight crew members to speak up more assertively, and pilots to listen more carefully.

The list goes on and on. As I said, it’s a fun book to read, and you might, maybe, hopefully, be able to relate it to work. It’s a superficial handling of very deep issues, though, so expect to be entertained and intrigued. Don’t expect to be enlightened or highly educated by this book.

– Diane Byington is a writer and coach who consults with The Booth Company.