July Book Review: Outliers – Story of Success
The July Book Review! Now in August! Yeah, yeah, I know I’m late; however, I was feeling a little under the weather towards the end of July. To make up for it, I’ll be reviewing a book that has become a standard-bearer for reading by new corporate recruits. Outliers: The Story of Success was written by Malcolm Gladwell and focuses on successful people. Pretty straightforward title, right?
Malcolm Gladwell has become a literary sensation. He’s currently an established writer with the New Yorker and has been since 1996. He’s written five different books: David and Goliath, What the Dog Saw, Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point. Personally, I’ve read Blink and, obviously, Outliers. So why is Gladwell a sensation? ALL FIVE of his books have made New York Times bestsellers! Pretty impressive considering his books all have a central theme: expanding on psychology and sociology case studies. So, without further ado. . .
Outliers: The Story of Success
I want to preface my review by saying this book was enjoyable to read. I’ve also been that guy and fact bombed people in conversation with anecdotes from the book. That said, I don’t see the hype. Outliers goes from one anecdote to the next, “proving” why they’re successful. The chapters are broken up by dividing anecdotes by what they prove.
To introduce the book, Gladwell provides the definition of an outlier: “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body”; “a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.” From those definitions, he then introduces the Roseto Effect. In Pennsylvania there is a city by the name of Roseto. From 1954 to 1961, Roseto had no instances of heart attacks and men over the age of 65 died at a rate of 1% a year to contrast with the national rate of 2% a year. The Head of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, conducted a study and found that the people in Roseto were simply dying of old age. This was despite the fact that Rosetans had begun using lard to cook with instead of olive oil, smoke like chimneys and “drank wine with abandon”. After contrasting Roseto with surrounding cities, he found the only thing that the ethnic enclave did, that others didn’t, was keep their family and community ties wholesome. Families lived in multi-generational houses, had a high rate of civic participation, and everyone lived fairly equally, regardless of income. Dr. Wolf hypothesized that as the community ties broke down, so too would the good health of the population. In 1985, a follow-up study was done and found that as the community ties broken down – from children leaving for more opportunity, to materialism becoming more rampant, and church participation going down – the mortality rate had become equal to the national level. As the study looked through medical records, they found that the death rates and disease were a slow creep, showing a slow unwinding of the community ties; something they were able to correlate with the stories from the older inhabitants. It was a fascinating story to read about and to do more research on.
However, that was exactly the problem I had with Outliers. The anecdotes, as singular short stories, were excellent. The problem is that they didn’t collectively produce an insightful book. I was also left wanting more. In fact, I used the book more as a source of references for things I should research than I did as a source of knowledge.
Outliers main point was that it takes a lot of hard work to get from mediocrity to success: 10,000 hours to be precise. He “proves” this by citing Bill Gates, and the Beatles, and that successful Asian kid who was in the library all the time. It discusses their fervor when it came to practicing. The Beatles performing for thousands of hours in Hamburg before getting famous and Bill Gates spending hours upon hours in grade school working on the original punch card system for programming. Overall, it takes meticulous hours of grinding to reach an expert level in something.
The book was incredibly well-researched. Gladwell obviously spent many, many hours conducting interviews and reading material. The problem though, as I’ve mentioned, is that that research didn’t provide enough evidence of his theory. My other main complaint is that Gladwell attacks his own premise. He notes that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, but only slightly hints that successful people can also be a function of opportunity. Ironic because he opens the book with a list of the wealthiest 75 people in history – including kings and queens, pharaohs and business magnates – and 14 of them are Americans born in 1830. Meaning those 14 people would have been 20 years old at the peak of the Industrial Revolution. With Gates, he specifically notes that Gates went to a premiere private school who had the resources to afford their very own computer. Something no public school could have done at the time due to cost implications. These were people, not only of exceeding ambition and passion, but also timely in their own existence.
The book was not what it was billed as, which was a cerebral and engaging read. I began to get bored with the flow of the book towards the end. Each anecdote read the same way: introduction, an ingenious idea or skill, an obstacle, and then success. However, the chapters titled “The Trouble with Geniuses” and “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” were by far my favorite. The Trouble with Geniuses was a short biography about Christopher Langan. Langan lived a fairly simple, but hard life. Coming from an abusive household, and working hard labor jobs for most of his life, he came to fame on the game show 1 vs 100. That’s when his life changed. Langan is an auto-didact – self-taught. He’s also believed to be the smartest man in the world with an IQ of 195-210. He is well versed in theoretical physics, language, math and philosophy. Langan in his spare time also created the “Theory of Everything”, a dissertation he is writing that proves the existence of God, the soul, and afterlife all using mathematics. For all of his intelligence though, Langan is, by popular standards, unsuccessful. He lives in a small ranch house in Montana, and before the show 1 v 100 where he won $250,000, never had much money. It was a striking anti-thesis to the rest of the book.
Overall, if the book was under $15, I would say go ahead and buy this for the research value. It’s very hard to find this much useful information all at once. Luckily, Amazon sells Outliers for $10.18. A more than fair price. This is a fantastic book to keep on your bookshelf or coffee table to look incredibly well-read. It’s entertaining, but it’s by no means academic.
Readers, have you read Outliers and agree or disagree with my review? Let me know. If you didn’t get a chance to read June’s book review, check it out here. Be sure to visit Cash Flow Celt on Facebook to get all the newest updates.