Friday, November 26, 2010

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

In Outliers, The Story Of Success, Malcolm Gladwell shows research that puts forward the theory that success is a combination of factors.  While intelligence plays a large part, so do birth order, cultural assumptions, and above all hard work.  Individuals must have the ability to see opportunities and then have the skills to take advantage of them.

One of the earliest chapters focuses on professional hockey players.  They are overwhelmingly born in the first three months of the year.  Inexplicable coincidence?  No, more likely that this phenomenon is the result of age cutoffs in sports teams, so that those born in January, February and March are usually the oldest on their teams, so more developed and more likely to be noticed.  Those noticed are picked for more advanced teams where they get more training, better coaching and more practice and playing time, all of which give them the opportunity to become better players than those who are left on their first skill level teams.

This plays out over and over again when trends are seen.  The dot-com millionaires?  Almost all were born from 1952-1955, when the computer was first introduced to the public, and kids in schools could get hours upon hours of programming time.  Successful musicians?  Most practice hundreds more hours than those who just never quite make it to the top.  Both groups are talented, but one group takes advantage of opportunities and hard work to develop that talent.

In one study, bright children in California were tested and tracked for over forty years.  Although all started in the brightest groups, by adulthood they had fallen into the superstars, the average and those who didn't quite make it.  Luck of the draw?  That assumption can be challenged when the facts show that those in the bottom group almost overwhelmingly had parents who were uninvolved in their lives and who didn't help their children focus and refine their talents.  Parenting styles seem to make a big difference.

Gladwell has written a thought-provoking book.  His thesis can be summed up in this quote: "...success follows a predictable course.  It is not the brightest who succeed.  Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf.  It is, rather, a gift.  Outliers are those who have been given opportunities--and who have the strength and presence of mind to seize them. ...To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success--the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history--with a society that provides opportunities for all."  This book is recommended for readers that are interested in learning how the world works and how we might improve it.

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