Book Report of Outliers: the Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist who specializes in using stories and scientific research to explain concepts in his works. Gladwell’s third book Outliers became a New York Times bestseller when it was published in 2008. In Outliers, Gladwell analyzes a series of stories and studies in an attempt to identify the determining factors of success. Gladwell’s main point is that success comes from the combination of hard work and having access to the proper opportunities and support network. Additionally, while intelligence can help success, Gladwell argues that intelligence alone is not enough and that factors such as culture and community can also contribute to success.
To introduce the book, Gladwell tells the story of a town called Roseto that had low instances of heart disease. Researchers concluded that the town was so healthy because of their strong community, deeming it “The Roseto Mystery.” This is a great introduction because Gladwell comes to conclusions similar to that of Roseto throughout the rest of the book. As discussed in chapter one, the “Matthew Effect” occurs when those who have an initial advantage are more likely to succeed. For example, older children in hockey have an advantage because the recruitment age cutoff makes for more mature hockey players. After these players have the initial advantage, they have more opportunity to spend time improving. Gladwell then highlights a study that states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master. Like older hockey players, musicians, computer programmers, and other individuals who have exceptional opportunities from a young age are able to achieve the requisite 10,000 hours, thus increasing their level of success. Raw skill is directly related to, but is not the only factor that contributes to success.
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Chapter 3, “Trouble with Geniuses,” analyzes the effect of intellect on success. A psychology professor named Lewis Terman analyzed data to determine a group of high school students with a high IQ, who he called “Termites.” Terman studied the “Termites” over time to track the benefits of high IQ and found that while they on average were more successful, the degree of their success was not very significant. From these findings, Gladwell posits that there are no tangible benefits to having an IQ above 120. To back up this claim, Gladwell examines study at Michigan Law School that observed how minority students had an easier time being admitted and received lower grades than regular admission students. Interestingly, minority student’s low marks did not have any remarkable impact on their careers relative to non-minority students. In chapter four, Gladwell contrasts the accomplishments of two geniuses, Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Langan had a rough childhood, and although he was able to attend school on a full scholarship, he dropped out to pursue manual labor and individual academic interests.
Oppenheimer, on the other hand, was raised well and had a successful academic and professional career. Along with the finding that intelligence does not directly relate to success, Gladwell draws from the work of Annette Lareau, a sociologist who concluded that practical intelligence stems from the degree of assertiveness. Involved parents push their children to express themselves and always fight for their own well being, which leads individuals to have the confidence to apply themselves. Less involved parents fail to teach their children assertiveness, and therefore the children do not apply themselves in academic or professional settings. Gladwell argues that Oppenheimer was more successful than Langan because he was raised to be more assertive.
In chapter five, Gladwell analyzes Joe Flom, a successful Harvard trained lawyer. Joe was optimistic, and took advantage of new work coming from the hostile takeovers of companies. Joe was lucky about the time period in which he was born because there were lots of opportunities and few others with his skillset. Gladwell then writes more broadly about Joe’s Jewish community. According to Gladwell, Jews are successful because they work meaningful, honest jobs that fulfill a need in the community, then raise their children with the mentality that hard work will be rewarded, so the children become more successful than their parents. The same thinking can be applied to the Chinese culture. According to Gladwell, rice farming and mathematical ability are related.
For reference, Chinese numbers are made from symbols, making them easier to understand, which plays a role in Chinese students’ exceptional math abilities. However, Gladwell argues that since rice farming is hard work and essential to the economy, parents raise their children to work hard on meaningful tasks such as math, which increases mathematical ability. Heritage and culture have a tangible impact on behavior. Families in Appalachia in the late 1800s were aggressive and feudal due to their Northern European shepherd heritage, where families were used to fighting over property. A study by the University of Michigan found that, due to cultural influences, Northerners were more likely to brush off insults than Southerners. In another example, Korean Air had a history of crashes and an Avianca Airlines flight crashed because of improper communications and standards stemming from pilots being afraid to be critical, and thus failing to address each other’s mistakes. Korean Air was able to improve its safety ratings by making its employees learn new languages that forced them to be more assertive in their communication.
To conclude the book, Gladwell tells the story of his family. His mother Joyce was born in Jamaica because she was lighter skinned than her peers, which made her excel socially. After high school, Joyce was fortunate to attend college in England. She then married his Gladwell’s father, a mathematician named Graham. Interestingly, the two faced disadvantages in England because of Joyce’s race. This comparison of life in Jamaica and England is a great way to end the book because Gladwell is able to drive home his message that success is dependent on context and is made up of many factors. This was a meaningful read for me because I am interested in success through entrepreneurship. Outliers is about making the most out of opportunities and support networks, which is similar to my favorite definition of entrepreneurship as the pursuit of opportunities beyond the resources you currently control. Outliers is a great read for anyone from high school students to business professionals, as it provides a simple explanation of the factors that contribute to success. By the same token, a more analytical person may not enjoy this book, as his analysis of studies tends to be subjective.
Overall, Outliers helped me to better understand the origins of success and how I can apply it to my life. Just like how the perfect change initiative can lead to a successful change, the perfect combination of intelligence level, skill level, culture, child rearing, and heritage can lead to personal success. In Leading and Managing Change, we learn about ways to effectively introduce, prepare for, manage, and lead change. The key element to change is the individual, and Outliers helps the to gain a better understanding of how individuals become successful. With the knowledge of how to become successful, individuals can not only lead themselves to success, but drive success in their organization.