In statistics, outliers are capable of throwing off large amounts of data....but not by much. By its very definition, an outlier is a lone example outside the pale of normal experience. Author Malcolm Gladwell uses the example of a freezing cold day in August to define Outliers: seemingly unaccountable phenomena among a larger body of much more standard or average data.
He argues that those phenomena might not be so unaccountable, and supports his position with familiar examples and some that are less well-known, from Bill Gates and The Beatles to Canadian hockey players and the ethnicity of airplane pilots. Gladwell's third best-selling nonfiction book, Outliers is accessible without being condescending, fun without being a waste of time or simply entertaining.
One of Gladwell's most striking ideas is the "10,000 hour rule." He posits that, while genius (IQ) may play a slight role in the success of individuals or groups, how much time they've spent doing what they do is far more likely to determine whether or not they're successful than simply how much brain power they can boast.
Take The Beatles. Probably the greatest rock band of all time, they're widely touted for their genius, creativity, and innovation. What really made them great, according to Gladwell, is the 10,000+ hours they spent in Hamburg, Germany playing upwards of 1200 shows over a four year period. Or Bill Gates: sure, he's smart, but his accomplishments as a computer programmer are mostly due to the 10,000 hours he spent programming on a computer he gained special access to at age 13.
On the other hand, he tells the story of Christopher Langan, a bona fide supergenius who is unable to succeed in a university environment due to low social intelligence and poor social skills. Langan was raised in poverty, where his particular abilities weren't restricted, but also weren't particularly nurtured or developed.
Gladwell speculates that it is largely environment and nurture which produces what we call "geniuses" or simply highly successful people. Near the end of the book, he looks at the relationship between Asian students' test scores and Eastern approaches to work, suggesting that Asians don't have innate mathematical aptitude, simply a special cultural value on and understanding of the need for hard work.
Some of Gladwell's examples seem a little far-fetched, particularly the chapter on airplane pilots and how ethnicity determines their ability to successfully navigate difficulties (his evidence seems a bit circumstantial at times). However, his rejection of the popular notion that genius determines success and that hard work is a moot point are very welcome in an age and culture when individuals are lauded as exceptional simply because they embody the old-fashioned ideals of perseverance and a strong work ethic.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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