A tasty sip of Science Lite

A review of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers is the latest book from pop social scientist Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point.  If you’re unfamiliar with his work, think Mental Floss or Psychology Today fodder; it’s the fun science-y stuff that’ll make you go “huh,” even if you’ve long forgotten how to use a pipette.  This time Gladwell examines the key to great success; how do masters like Mozart, Bill Gates, or The Beatles achieve success far above anyone else?  Traditional American wisdom attributes success to innate ability and drive.  Just pull up your bootstraps and get to work!  But Gladwell wants to look beyond this old notion; remarkable achievement, he says, has as much, or more, to do with serendipity, social skill, and being born in the right time and place to a particular kind of people.  These insights may be no revelation, but the case studies he uses to illustrate his argument are really wild and illuminating.  Here’s just a taste:

  • Why are more professional hockey players born in January than any other month?
  • Why does it take exactly 10,000 hours to become a world expert in just about anything?
  • Why do we use IQ tests to predict success, when a better indicator might be asking someone to list uses for a brick or a blanket?
  • Why did so many Korean Air planes crash in the 1990’s when crewmen on-board often knew what errors had been made and how to correct them?

The larger implication of Gladwell's anecdotes is that community shapes us in innumerable ways which cannot be ignored.  His scope of argument, which crosses time, cultures, and academic fields, is bound to hook you in one way or another.  While reading this book, I subjected those around me to countless paraphrasing of Gladwell’s stories; they linger on your brain and won’t leave you alone!  Better for you: pick this for book club and avoid talking off your friends’ ears.

Gladwell’s books, this one included, aren’t perfect of course.  It’s really more pop than science, and you’ll probably wonder about the just-as-bizarre counter examples Gladwell isn’t mentioning.  In an odd way to Gladwell’s credit, he is such a candidly persuasive writer that his books feel a bit too crafted and over-polished.  He takes all the 5th grade writing rules about topic sentences and concluding paragraphs to heart.  Exhaustively.  By the end of his books, I’m annoyed by the tireless “I-am-going-to-tell-you”s and “now-I-have-shown-you”s, when in fact he hasn’t really proven anything, just presented some thought-provoking stories.  So, while I had to tolerate Gladwell’s rhetorical abuses, I do think this book is well worth your time for a bit of insightful fun.

Comments

Just wanted to give this one another bump, although the waiting list is still pretty lengthy after nearly a year. It really is social science light and all but it's very readable and insightful and quite enjoyable. One of the geniuses he mentions in his book also figured pretty prominently in one of the essays in Wounded warriors

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