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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell December 15, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Outliers, Systems Thinking.
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Gladwell starts off with an interesting premise. Outliers—those with seemingly extraordinary abilities or success—can be explained by looking at the environment in which they were raised, the opportunities they were given to excel, and the amount of time they put into honing their crafts (whatever they may be). He spends most of the book citing examples that fit the theory. The Beatles’ meteoric rise to fame was due in part to the thousands of hours of live playing they did together in Hamburg Germany before they made it big in England. Bill Gates was the fortunate victim of a lot of circumstances that gave him more time on a computer as a young man than almost anyone else alive. Robert Oppenheimer, with a genius-level IQ goes on to run the Manhattan Project, while Chris Langan (who?), also with a remarkable IQ, bounces at a bar in Colorado—the differences apparently due to how much social interaction each was given as a child (the more you have, the better able you are to use influence, which you use to be your advocate). There are a host of observations in the book that seem to prove that if you’re at the right place, at the right time, and have the necessary skills in place to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you, you too will be an outlier.

While I enjoyed the read tremendously, I think it actually posed more questions than it answered. Gladwell has convenient examples that fit his hypothesis; their sum total paints a fairly convincing picture of nurture over nature. I guess I can’t blame him, but there’s very little alternative hypotheses presented for him to disprove to make his own point stronger. There’s a reason he’s considered a “pop sociologist”: guess that’s one of them. Also, retroactively we can look to see why someone became what they did: because of the time they spent honing a craft, the encouragement they received to hone it, the “big break” that allows them to put it into practice. But how do we mold our lives now to make that happen for us? The lynchpin is the big break; and, unfortunately, we may not get it. So, Outliers is not a “how to” manual (although one can glean elements to put into practice), but more of a “how they did” retrospective. Oh well, guess there’s a reason I’m in business school…

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