I was bothered by Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’

March’s book was Malcolm Gladwell’s take on the making of success, Outliers. As described on Gladwell’s site, the general premise is that “if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them-at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date.”

The book takes various stories of remarkable success (or failure) and delves into the situations in which they emerged, challenging the narrative of a prodigy or genius who has ‘come from nothing’ and instead suggesting that there is often a series of fortunate circumstances under the surface that lead to their rise.

Outliers

On a basic level, I found the book interesting. It was an intriguing read to discover the basis of the 10,000 Hour Rule (about which I’d heard before). I was surprised at how simple and yet complex some of the theories were. On the surface, I was amused at how some seemed so obvious but still weren’t something I’d considered before – for example, that being born earlier in the year can give young baseball players an advantage, as they are older and therefore more developed than their peers when try-outs are held, if only by a few months (though a few months can make a big difference in, say, 13-year-old boys) – leading to a disproportionate representation of January-March birthdays in professional American baseball teams.

Yet something bothered me about this book. I still can’t quite put my finger on it. But there were moments when I wondered whether for each perfect, illustrative example Gladwell gave for his theories, there was a slew of examples that didn’t fit the hypothesis.

Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller. His ideas are certainly fascinating and the way he describes the history and circumstances of the people he profiles made for a really interesting read.

I know the book doesn’t claim to be non-fiction, and I’ll admit I had to adjust my interpretation to reflect this (before I started reading, I thought it was more of a reference book).

But as I continued to read, there were some stories that didn’t quite hit the mark for me. Without re-hashing the entire story, Gladwell’s chapter on ‘The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’ raised my eyebrow a number of times.

The book has been criticised in the press for relying too heavily on anecdotal evidence rather than solid research, and this was certainly something I picked up as I was reading.

But then I came across this New York Times review of the book from 2008, which articulated much of my gut feeling about Outliers:

Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well.

And that, I think, was my main issue with it. As I mentioned, at first I found this ‘common sense’ approach somewhat amusing, but by the end it started to bother me. “Well, duh” would have been an accurate response to much of what was put forward, followed by; “but I wouldn’t take it that far”.

Image credit: ‘Outliers’ by DJ Lein, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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