book review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success is, just as the title says, a nonfiction book about success.  More specifically, it’s about how success happens.  The author’s main points are: (1) talent and/or intelligence only matter up to a certain point; (2) if you have the minimal amount of talent/intelligence needed, practicing for at least 10,000 hours will lead to mastery; (3) many of the success stories we hear about (Bill Gates was one example he brought up) are not due to the individual’s talent or intelligence but due to lucky circumstances that the individual took advantage of.

In the Bill Gates example, the author talked about how Bill was living in a well-to-do suburb when he was growing up and this suburb happened to have a PTO that made a computer and network connection available.  Bill was able to take advantage of this when most schools didn’t even have computers.  When he went to college, while other students were limited to a certain number of hours being online, he happened to meet someone who helped him get around the time limit.  Thus, he could spend as much time on the computer as he wanted while other students didn’t have the same advantage to hone their programming skills.  Yes, he was interested in and was good at computers, but he also happened to have a number of advantages that others didn’t.  If Bill Gates had been born in the 1970s, for example, he probably wouldn’t have had the success that he did because the computer revolution would have been over by the time he was old enough to learn programming.  Bill Gates was just one example.  The author provided many other examples of “successful” people who were lucky to be born at the right time, into the right family, in the right place.

The author discussed intelligence and talent and how it plays into success, too.  On one hand, a certain amount of intelligence and talent is necessary.  Bill Gates almost certainly wouldn’t have obtained his success level if his IQ had been 70.  Having said that, the author talked about a study that was done addressing intelligence.  A researcher (I can’t remember the name now) decided to hand pick children who had very high IQs and follow them to see how their careers would turn out.  The researcher expected that there would be more Nobel laureates and more generally successful people in this group than in the general population.  Surprisingly, the group of children with high IQs had the same success rates as the general population.

There was one example specifically discussed of someone whose IQ was so high that his scores aren’t even accurate because he got so many answers correct.  This person, however, was not successful in the traditional sense.  He makes a modest income and is married, but hasn’t won any awards and certainly isn’t well-off financially.  A closer look at this person’s life revealed that he had a troubled upbringing.  His parents were poor and not very educated.  This person was accepted to college on a scholarship, but lost the scholarship because he was late with something (sorry, I can’t remember if he didn’t respond to the scholarship in time or if he was late to class numerous times due to car troubles).  He asked the Dean to allow him to keep the scholarship, but was refused.  The author pointed out that this person’s birth circumstances gave him a disadvantage compared to some born into educated, middle- to upper-class families because those in middle- to upper-class families are often encouraged to challenge authority or to question adults.  Those in poorer families tend to see authority figures as figures not to be questioned.  They don’t learn how to talk to these figures, and aren’t able to justify their circumstances properly.  Had this person explained his extenuating circumstances to the Dean, he probably would have been able to keep the scholarship and finish college.  As it turned out, he dropped out of college and never did get a degree.

I liked reading the case studies in this book.  In the United States, we would like to think that, with hard work, you can do anything.  This, of course, isn’t true.  It was interesting to learn about the research behind the arguments.  I checked out some of the references in the book to learn more about some of the studies.

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