Book Review: Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers has become fairly popular for the view that reaching “world wide elite” status in any field requires around 10,000 hours of practice, but the book is more than this theory. The book discusses various “outliers”, people who are outside the normal range of talent or success. The book is also about re-evaluating what causes success. The popular narrative is that people become successful through their own hard work. Gladwell suggests that it’s more complicated than this.

I started reading Outliers after a tweet I saw over the weekend to Tim Ferriss linking to an article  claiming that Malcolm Gladwell’s 10K hours theory had been refuted by research. The actual article is fairly badly written, with an example confusing hours of practice with elapsed time to mastering chess. In their example, they showed someone who had spent 2 years practicing and someone with 27 years of practice, ignoring how much time each person had spent during that time. The actual paper was better written than this, and shows that only 34% of the variation of subjects’ ability was due to hours practising, with the other 66% being an unknown reason.

I decided it was probably worth reading the book to find out what Gladwell had written. Was he claiming that mastery just required 10K hours of practice? It was a fairly quick read, and he talks about different reasons why geniuses or masters don’t get to the top of their field in a vacuum. How often they are the victims of a fortuitous series of events, from when they were born to where their families had come from.

He starts by talking about the Canadian ice hockey league and how the best players are picked from an early age until the best of the best are playing professional hockey. Except, it’s not quite as clear cut as that. The vast majority of the professional players have birthdays in the first few months of the year, because the cut off for youth leagues is 1st January, which means that if you’re born in January, you have almost an entire year of maturity over someone born in December, and at the young ages where they start playing ice hockey, around six years old, this can make a considerable difference in size and strength. So these early born players tend to get picked for extra coaching and practice over the later births, only amplifying the differences in skills between the children, so by the time they get to their teenage years, it’s incredibly hard for those born later in the year to compete. This happens anywhere in sport where there is a single annual cut off and players start being groomed from an early age.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

Gladwell does then talk about studies showing that nearly all the experts in any particular skill tend to put in considerably more hours than people with lesser skills. He does bring up the subject of why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. He explains that people who are at the very top aren’t there due to some innate ability but because they have worked hard practising over the years to improve their skills, and they don’t just work harder than others, but orders of magnitude harder.

Being at the right place at the right time is another example of reasons why success happens for some people, and not for others. He uses the example of Bill Gates and Bill Joy, two of Silicon Valleys early wonderkids. He talks about Bill Gates’ access to a time-shared terminal that a group of parents had clubbed together to buy for his school before these were common items in universities, let alone schools. Without that foresight by those parents, he would not have had the opportunity to learn programming. If he had been born a few years earlier, he would have grown up in an era of punch card programming, which involved a very laborious and frustrating job of making the punch cards, submitting them and waiting 24 hours to get the results, and a single mistake would have made the day worthless.  If he had been older, he may have given up on programming. When the Altair88, the first affordable, home-buildable computer, came out, Bill Gates was just the right age to see the potential of the device, while anyone younger was still in school and anyone older would have graduated and settled into corporate jobs working for the likes of IBM where computers filled rooms and the Altair was a toy. Of course, he also had years of programming skills to take advantage of being in the right place at the right time.

Gladwell then talks about the role that parenting and upbringing has on success. Studies had shown that intelligence didn’t lead automatically to success. He talks about how different backgrounds lead to an “accumulative advantage”. Perhaps their parents taught them the skills to work with authority, bending rules to their desired outcomes, while others taught them to not question authority, and to not fight for what they wanted. Some children grow up seeing the hard work and the rewards that provides. Each of these things provide small differences in someone’s personality, or provide small advantages, which together, over time, build up into larger advantages. This gives a great example as to why some people struggle to succeed while others from different backgrounds flourish. It’s not that the American dream doesn’t exist; it’s just that it’s so much harder for others.

The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do — the innately talented ones.

I didn’t find the book to be particularly useful on a personal level; there was very little to learn from the book, with the exception that luck and hard work are important factors in success as much as raw talent is. We like to read rag-to-riches stories and imagine that it’s an over-night success or that they’re successful due to their own skill, where as this may not be the whole story.

It is reassuring, though, that a lack of an innate ability shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to success.

Image Credits: BusinessWeek

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