Review: Outliers

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[Book Review]

Your college alumni letter came the other day. You read it, surprised and a little depressed.

A first-class slacker you graduated with is a multi-millionaire now.  The Guy Most Likely to Succeed has done just that and more. And that cheerleader you dated?  She’s parlayed her pom-poms into prosperity and she’s living large.

And you, well, you coulda been a contender but the only Rocky you know has been life since college. Although you’re not doing too badly, your classmates obviously did better. Were they born lucky or did their parents “know somebody”?  Find out the truth in the new book “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell.

You know a star when you see it. It’s the athlete who makes the game look effortless, the businessperson who breezily turns junk into gold, the lawyer who’s top in your address book, the teacher you remember best. Gladwell calls those people “Outliers”. They lie outside – but above – the norm.

And they are successful. But why?

Gladwell says that, in order to understand highly successful people, you need to look at where they’re from, ancestrally, culturally, and geographically.  Mix in innate ability, seizable opportunity, and plain old luck and you can predict who succeeds.

In Canada, for instance, Gladwell says that an overwhelming majority of elite hockey players were born in the first three months of the year. The months themselves aren’t the key; instead, the best players are best because youth-team age-bracketing runs January 1st through December 31st.  Pucksters born early have a several-month advantage over their smaller, younger teammates.

Birth year can play a part in success, too. Gladwell says it’s no coincidence that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other computer giants were born in the middle 1950s, just like it’s no coincidence that some of today’s most respected law firms were started by men who were born in the mid-1930s.

But success isn’t just a matter of birth. Researchers say that it takes an average of ten thousand hours of practice to become the best at any task. Seizing opportunity definitely helps. If your parents were born to a hard-working culture, that’ll give you a leg-up. Somehow getting entire organizations to change their schedules would be beneficial. But brains?  Great if you’ve got ‘em, but high intelligence isn’t at the top of success-making lists.  Practical intelligence is much more desirable.

“Outliers” is, for the most part, a lively and fascinating trip through the making of a success.  Taking readers from Canada to Europe, Jamaica—where Gladwell, a descendant of slaves, caught an ancestral “break”—to Wall Street, author Malcolm Gladwell is gleeful in revealing his findings. Although he sometimes rambles before he explains himself, what you’ll learn is layered so that it’s not overwhelming.

The only problem I see with this book is that it’s going to tell you how to spot success, but you won’t learn how to get it.  Still, Gladwell’s latest is one of those business books that doubles as fun, making “Outliers” a book to stay in with this winter.

Book details: “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. c.2008, Little, Brown and Company. $27.99 / $30.99 Canada. 320 pages


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