Let me clarify a couple of things at the outset about ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’. First, the name ‘Outliers’ imparts a wrong impression of a book based on crucial statistical observations (incidentally, an outlier in the world of statistics is an observation which is far removed from other values in the data set) and this book is hardly that. Second, ‘Outliers’ has its fair share of loopholes – oversimplification of complex phenomena being one. However, despite its chinks, ‘Outliers’ is a riveting book. Gladwell exhibited this uncanny knack for choosing unusual stories in his last two books and he keeps up the flow with ‘Outliers’.
‘Outliers’ is the third book in Malcolm Gladwell’s quest for unraveling conventional wisdom. His previous two books -‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘Blink’ – have been best-sellers. In ‘Outliers’, Gladwell intends to decipher the way we interpret success, especially, the success of others. It’s an acknowledged fact that we attribute the success of the famous to factors such as hard-work, luck, genius, etc. Rarely do we consider the significance of being present at the right place at the right time or for that matter, the role of our ancestry or even plain oversight. Consider one of the various accounts from the book: Why Southerners are still as aggressive as their great-great- grandfathers? Gladwell traces the roots of Southerners’ aggression to their forefathers who were Irish descendants and who had spent most of their time herding animals in lawless territories. Throughout the book, Gladwell comes across as a great believer in the theory of heritage and patronage.
Another interesting account is that of Bill Gates and his ascendancy to the top of Software Mountain. Gladwell explains that behind Bill Gates and every other successful person, there is perseverance. But do you know the right amount of perseverance required to become successful? Generally, we have no clue. Gladwell makes it easy by quantifying perseverance. He says that all successful people have at least 10,000 hours of focused hard work behind them. When I first read this, it sounded quite far-fetched to me but on careful observation and after some research, I was convinced that his words carry weight. Though Gladwell has cited Bill Gates, Bobby Fischer; one can go ahead and look for more such people who have had overwhelming success, e.g. Warren Buffet. For starters, Buffet started investing at the age of 12 and he became a millionaire at 26. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that he must have had good 10,000 hours of hard-work behind him. Consider any chess whiz, sports personality – they all start at a very young age. The only thing I found missing from Gladwell’s conclusion was a note on degree of success. Putting 10,000 hours of learning in Investing may or may not make me a Warren Buffet but will still ensure success for me.
Then, there is importance of being present in the right place at the right time. Gladwell underlines the role of our ability to identify opportune moments and their subsequent significance in improving our lives. Account of Jewish lawyers who started practicing Mergers and Acquisitions in the 70s when other white-collar law firms considered it beneath their dignity is a terrific example. Wave of M&A activity in the 80s elevated the Jewish lawyers to the top of the hill.
The book is full of such uncanny stories. By the end of it, Gladwell, quite convincingly, proves that outliers aren’t actually outliers. It’s our indivisible interpretation of success every time that makes us look at every success story as an Outlier story. Let me emphasize that Gladwell never says that without hard work and by being present in the right place at the right time, one can accomplish success. He gives us a case not to label success as a work of genius and hard-work every time. Period.