Book Club – Outliers, The Story Of Success

Book: Outliers, The Story of Success

Publishing Year: 2008

About the Author: Malcolm Gladwell is an English-born Canadian journalist, public speaker, and author of five New York Times bestsellers — The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. His latest book published in 2019 is titled Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. Gladwell is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, the producer of the podcasts Revisionist History. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. Included in the TIME 100 Most Influential People list, Gladwell is considered one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.

Growth Is A Journey summary consists of a series of questions and answers, intended to represent 1-2 key nuggets of insight from the book, as well as personal takeaways with an invitation for readers to discover the book in its entirety.

Key message of the Book: Outliers is a non-fiction thought-provoking book, reframing stories of success of high achievers, such as Bill Gates and Beatles, referred to as outliers. Such stories of extreme success are not defined solely through the lens of personal traits, talents, and hard work; they are presented through the lens of external factors such as the culture, environment, upbringing, generation and family of those outliers. As Malcolm put it, “the point of my book Outliers was that we need to tell the story of success in different ways, looking at the way talent is affected by luck and circumstance and culture and context.”  Of interest, as of June 2020, HBO Max is reported to have an “Outliers” series project under development, based on Gladwell’s book.

What to know before reading: The book is structured in two parts: opportunity and legacy, two external factors found to be strong contributors to the success of outliers. What opportunities we are being offered and what social, cultural, and family legacy we are inheriting can make a huge difference: “The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact, they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”  Each chapter of the book is alike a social study case, used to demonstrate how things like the birthdate, place, generation, timing, environment, and culture where you might be born or grow up into matter a lot.

To make it more concrete, as an example: Chapter one titled the Matthew Effect talks about how many hockey league players in Canada have birth months close to the cutoff date for youth hockey leagues. Players who are born within a few months of the cutoff date -January 1st- are generally slightly more developed than players who are born later in the year. Even if there is a slight age advantage, older kids are likely a bit stronger physically, meaning they have higher chances to be drafted for All-Star teams. Once selected, those kids are given better opportunities to practice and get coached than the younger kids. What started as a small advantage becomes a built-in advantage based on birth date, causing significant differences in the players ‘physical abilities on the long run. Such phenomenon has been coined as the Matthew Effect from the bible verse, calling out that those advantaged will get further advantaged while the disadvantaged will see more losses.

Throughout the book, you will be journeying through the connection between plane crashes and national cultures, why many software tycoons in Silicon Valley are born around 1955, why descendants of Jewish immigrants, born around 1930 became very successful lawyers in New York, and why Asian children are so good in math.

Biggest personal learning from the book: Key learning for me was the idea of success being the result of not only hard work but also of opportunities created by the environment, generation, culture, or family you are born in. External factors influence success, as much or potentially even more than personal traits like IQ, talent or determination. Reading the book, it has opened my eyes and mind to the opportunities I have received via my birth date, culture, environment, generation and family history, and how as a parent, professional or leader, I cannot ignore the importance of such external factors when considering success of my own or those around me in my sphere of influence.

One specific learning from the book:

Known as the 10,000-hour rule, Malcolm talks about the importance of practicing and mastering a skill to achieve world-class level of expertise: “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Furthermore, Outliers seem to be folks who were given unique opportunities to practice early enough to get to the 10,000-hour level early in their careers or lives: “But there is nothing in any of the histories we’ve looked at so far to suggest things are that simple. These are stories, instead, about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society”.  For instance, Beatles started as a high school rock band, struggling at the beginning but which got the opportunity to practice hard when invited to play at a night club in Hamburg for eight hours a night, seven days a week for several times between 1960 and 1962: “All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times”.

As someone who sees hard work as a personal value, I also empathized with the idea of finding meaning in work: “Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” In other words, “hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig”.

How is this book different from other leadership books: The book is not the typical success/self-help book encouraging a specific set of individual traits or skills, or a particular mindset. It is a book woven in social, economic, and cultural research that explains in a fascinating way how as human beings our success has a lot to do with the external world/culture/environment/generation we live in. It brings to light in a very compelling way that “success is a group project”: “It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances, and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds – and how many of us succeed – than we think.”

Additional resources: For more details on https://www.gladwellbooks.com/

Comments/Feedback: I would love to hear from you with comments, thoughts, and testimonials on Outliers.

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