Books

Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

I was taught that those who are successful are naturally thus. That they have some secret hidden power inside them that makes them better than others in a particular task. This isn’t only something I heard from the laypeople but from my teachers and other people of authority. Such a statement can have a devastating blow to children’s ego and motivation when they grow up and try new things. This idea of natural talent, unfortunately, hasn’t died out. People still throw it around carelessly, causing damage not only on the individual level but also on a national level.

Malcolm Gladwell address this issue in his book Outliers, where he goes over what makes people successful. To sum, it up: practice, luck, culture, and did I mention luck? Luck to the point that it can have a huge difference when and where you are born. Not to mention to whom. Children who are born at the end of the year have a huge disadvantage to those who have born at the beginning with school with hobbies and with everything. They have a lot to catch up with their “peer group.” Why I put peer group in quotation marks is that Gladwell argues that we should have a graduated entry to school or to a football team. It makes sense. A month or two makes a huge difference in that age.

Outliers is a great book, and I loved listening to Malcolm Gladwell reading. He brought the text alive. He has a warm and compassionate voice. While I agree with him with most of the statements, that to be successful you have to have a supportive background, right cultural influence, an opportunity to spend 10 000 hours practicing, and luck, I find his methods iffy. He uses lots of examples and draws generalizations from individual cases, and while they are memorable, they are not enough for a scientific argument. Not enough to say this is the truth. Even when his statements make common sense. We all know from history that common sense can fail more than often we care to admit. We need scientific studies to validate their truthfulness. There are places where he quotes studies done, but they are left on the background, not wiping away the fact he leans heavily on individual examples and their power to prove general laws.

I understand why he does this. Individual cases and examples are more memorable and influence the reader. Also, he has written this for the public, not for academic purposes. Yet, I still find it troublesome as I have seen and heard professors quote his work and stating his conclusions as facts. That is, of course, a “mistake” from their part, but such occurrences show the spreading power of seeming facts stemming from common sense.

I have complained a lot. More than my usual. This is not because I didn’t like the book, the opposite in fact. I think, the misconceptions of any kind, like the thought of natural talent, have the power to harm and should be used carefully. So it might sound odd if I recommend this book, but I do. This book makes you rethink what you thought about your own successes and failures. I can remember several times when as a child, I should have received more encouraging to spend hours practicing than thinking I’m not naturally good at this. The subjects Malcolm Gladwell brings up in the book should be studied further. They are important to our comprehension of how someone becomes successful.

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