Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers are those points of data which fall outside the Bell Curve or the normal distribution of the data. Yet people can be outliers too, especially when they achieve much more than the norm.
When asked why he wrote the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says he became frustrated at the way hugely successful people – yes, like Bill Gates – are regarded as being really smart or really ambitious. Gladwell says he knows plenty of really smart, really ambitious people who aren’t worth 60-billion dollars. So there must be a further explanation and Outliers is the result of the author’s exhaustive attempt to find and spell out that explanation.
Simple things first: why do some young athletes excel and some do not. Gladwell found that date of birth has a lot to do with it. Youngsters born early in the year are naturally more mature and stronger than those born towards the end of the year when they compete in same-age sports where the 1 January is the cut-off point. In similar vein, in chapter two, Gladwell notes that the computer wizards like Gates, Steve Jobs (Apple) and Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems) just happened to be born in the mid-1950s and were the right age at the right time when the whole computer revolution gained traction.
And there is more to it than that. In the case of Gates he had the huge advantage of regular use of a computer long before most people had access. The Mothers Club at his school purchased a computer which was placed in a small room where Gates “lived”. He got to do real-time programming as an eighth grader in 1968.
So being born at the right time and being in the right place at the right time are essential elements of outlier-style success, but so is hard work.
Taking the most successful musical group of all time – The Beatles – as an example, Gladwell develops the 10,000 hour principle where he says that the huge success stories have usually put in an enormous effort to get there. Prior to hitting it big in the music industry, the four lads from Liverpool in England scored a job in Hamburg, Germany. In England the band was used to playing for perhaps one hour in the evening – running through a repertoire of their favorite songs and then enjoying themselves. To their surprise, in Hamburg they were expected to play for eight hours a night – every night!
It was no wonder that The Beatles honed their skills. In just over a year and a half, they notched up over 270 eight-hour stints in Hamburg and, by the time they began to hit the big-time in 1964, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. As Gladwell points out, many bands don’t perform that often in their entire career or, as champion golfer Gary Player once famously said: “the harder I work the luckier I get”.
Gladwell takes the reader on and on through a wealth of examples of situations where circumstances, rather than individual brilliance, led to outlier results. Why are the Jewish law firms in New York so successful? How did Korean Air manage to overcome an abysmal accident record which threatened to ground them permanently?
New York Times columnist David Brooks made the obvious point in his review of Outliersand used William Shakespeare as his example. If Gladwell is saying that hard work and circumstances are far more important than being smart or ambitious, how can he explain a Shakespeare – surely the greatest of outliers?
Gladwell’s three books set out to explain phenomena for which, prior to his work at least, the world might have had a different view. The Tipping Point explained the “epidemic process” where, for some reason, things suddenly take off and become popular or major changes in society occur. In Blink, he endorsed and clarified the value of snap judgments where most people would have viewed them as far less reliable than reasoned responses. In Outliers he again builds his argument well that huge success does not occur for some intangible reason – in most cases.
And Shakespeare? Well, he was born at the right time to take advantage of the huge popularity of live theater in the age in which he lived. He might well have put in 10,000 hours writing rubbish before he hit the jackpot, but he obviously had the smarts and the ambition as well. Gladwell’s work involves delineating general principles in various areas of life. There are always outliers.