Outliers: The Story of Success
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Allen Lane
Pages: 309 Price in India: Rs 399
The other day I asked a group of young students (of class 12) what they thought were the ingredients of success in life. Their answer (in the order it came from them) was: hard work, luck, buttering… Being thoroughly familiar with the Hindi idiom makhan lagaana, I understood immediately what ‘buttering’ meant. I work in an institution whose Manager unabashedly reminds the staff that ingratiating themselves with the people in power was essential for career advancement. The young students meant the same thing by ‘buttering’. So I asked them whether buttering was more important than aptitude and skills. They answered that it was so in their experience.
I had just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, when I asked the question to the students. The subtitle of the books is: The Story of Success. I bought the book precisely because like my students I too was beginning to wonder whether ‘buttering’ was an essential ingredient of success. I was relieved to see that Gladwell doesn’t add ‘butter’ to his recipe.
The book is the result of an extensive research by the author into the ingredients of success. It differs from others books of the kind in that it is not motivational but factual. Outliers gives us some facts about certain successful people (and one remarkable unsuccessful person) and draws certain conclusions.
Hard work, opportunities and luck, and the background from which one comes are the ingredients of success, according to the book. [My students had got the first two right, in the right order too.]
Citing detailed examples of the Beatles and Bill Gates, Gladwell argues that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” There is a chapter titled ‘The 10,000 – Hour Rule’. People who conquered peaks of excellence in significant domains had put in about ten thousand hours of labour! The Beatles had played music and sang songs for about that many hours before their albums started selling in millions. Bill Gates had put in about that much labour as a young student on the computers that were available to him in the days of his adolescence and youth.
Gladwell also cites examples from the research conducted in 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson and his two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. “In fact,” in Gladwell’s words, “by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totalled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totalled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totalled just over four thousand hours.” [That reminded me of Bernard Shaw’s wit: ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’]
Opportunities and luck also play a vital role in one’s ascent to the heights, argues Gladwell. “But what truly distinguishes their (the successful people’s) histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities,” says Gladwell. Let me quote that whole paragraph: “The Beatles, for the most random of reasons, got invited to Hamburg. Without Hamburg, the Beatles might well have taken a different path. ‘I was very lucky,’ Bill Gates said at the beginning of our interview. That doesn’t mean he isn’t brilliant or an extraordinary entrepreneur. It just means that he understands what incredible good fortune it was to be at Lakeside in 1968.”
Gladwell devotes almost two chapters to Chris Langan, a man with an IQ of 200 (Albert Einstein’s IQ was 150) but ended up as a farmer due to lack of luck. Langan’s is a moving story worth reading in Gladwell’s rendition.
I didn’t find Gladwell equally convincing when he spoke about the role played by the family/social/cultural/ethnic backgrounds. I agree with him the backgrounds do play a vital role in one’s successes and failures. But his explanations are not convincing. Rather, they are not lucid. Gladwell has obfuscated his otherwise brilliant writing with a lot of jargon from airlines and other sources while discussing the last ingredient of success.
It was a delightful experience reading the book, the last part being the exception. But the very last chapter redeems the book again. It is about Gladwell himself: the history of his own life is a charming detail.
I recommend this book to those who wish to understand success from a realistic perspective.
A note on the title: The word ‘outlier’ refers to “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.”