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Book Review of: Outliers

The Story of Success

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Review of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (Hardcover, 2008)

Author of The Tipping Point and Blink.

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

As with The Tipping Point and Blink, this third book from Malcolm Gladwell was interesting and thought-provoking. As with his other books, reading it is like reading the opening argument made by one side in a series of debates. It's a great conversation starter, but not a treatise on the topic. It's well-written, with only a few gaffes in grammar and spelling.

This book consists of nine chapters and an epilogue. The first five chapters are in Part One, "Opportunity" and the last five are in Part Two, "Legacy."

If you're familiar with Gladwell's works, you know he writes interesting opinion pieces rather than rigorous works of research. He comes from a newspaper background, so this is to be expected. Most of us enjoy a well-written opinion piece, as long as it's not blatantly insulting to our intelligence (as, for example, the NYT consistently is). Though Gladwell's books aren't serious works of research, they make for enjoyable reading and some intellectual stimulation.

I disagree

Because I happened to read this the year after its release, I glanced at what other reviewers were saying. Are we all talking about the same book?

At one end, there are the worshippers. They proclaim this book offers great insight based on solid research. But the book isn't rigorously researched, doesn't fully develop any of its arguments, and really doesn't offer new insights. It presents some cherry-picked examples and knits them together to form a flimsy framework of some interesting ideas in a fairly preliminary manner. This is what interesting conversationalists do all the time, to start interesting conversations. It does present some meta ideas that you will catch if you are alert enough; more on those, in a bit.

Unfortunately, Gladwell interjects conclusions into his "conversation starter" instead of asking questions. So, he sort of stifles the whole point of the book, if that point is per the above. Gladwell presents his conclusions as fact without the evidence or rigorous examination to do so credibly. That's considered unfair among interesting conversationalists, and it's the kiss of death in a debate.

At the other end, there are the demonizers. They deride this book unfairly and exaggerate its weaknesses while minimizing its strengths and value. One of these reviewers gives the impression that Gladwell did a few Wikipedia searches and not much else and just threw together a poor excuse of a book using fallacies of logic and a very inventive mind. But Gladwell did look at a variety of sources. He just didn't take that far enough to address contrary evidence and defend holes in his theories. It's not a scholarly work, and I think it's important not to grade it as one.

As would be expected, the truth lies between these two extremes. Outlier isn't a terrible book, and it's not a great one. It's between. It's not total fluff, but it's not a serious scholarly work. It's between.

The book lacks rigorous research, so it is not possible to draw supportable conclusions from what Gladwell presented. This doesn't mean his material is completely out in left field; it just means that he hasn't made a solid case for his conclusions. In a peer-reviewed journal, this kind of work would be rejected outright. But this isn't a peer-reviewed journal; it's a book by a person with no experience or formal credentials in the field he's writing about and it needs to be considered in that context. While such books will never be academic references or cultural game changers, they do have their place.

Both the lavishly praising and harshly criticizing reviews struck me as superficial and inaccurate.

Wrong title

The word "outliers" is one that that Gladwell seems to not understand, and which did not make an accurate title for this book. I think the presumptuousness and non-relevance of the title opened the author to the kind of criticism he's drawn.

The subtitle, "The Story of Success" is also inappropriate. My question, "Are we talking about the same book?" also applies to the title and subtitle.

Not all of the anecdotes are about outliers. Perhaps none are. I know this word from its usage in statistical analysis. Really, there is about zero statistical analysis in this book, so the word should not even be used in conjunction with the text.

I'm not a statistician, nor have I played on on TV. But I'm familiar enough with the discipline to know that you need to work from a very large representative sample of the population and use some calculus before you can start talking about what parts of society are in the areas along the edges of the curve. There's not a single differential equation in this book; in the professional journals I regularly read, I might come across a dozen diffiQs in a single article.

It's not "the" story of success; it's "a few stories" of success rather than even a representative sample. Another author could probably write a book of "other" stories of success that aren't congruent with these few.

Practical value: true or false

Despite the above, I believe the points Gladwell makes in this book are worth considering. As a member of Mensa, I know quite a few geniuses (and I are one, too, ha, ha). Gladwell is correct that IQ does not automatically confer success. Anyone can go to Sears and buy a great tool set. But not just anyone can be a great mechanic. A high IQ is like that tool set. How you use it is what matters (with nods to the size doesn't matter folks). But as Gladwell might point out, it helps if your dad run runs the car clinic your grandfather started and you grew up in a town with a couple of racing tracks.

One of his underlying concepts, if I understand him correctly, is that no single personal characteristic automatically confers success. That's not a new or controversial concept. And what about the inverse of that? Even a single great flaw, if one believes Sean Stephenson or Tony Robbins, can't stand in the way of success. Gladwell seems to be saying this, as well.

Some people complained the book has no practical value. Au contraire. Consider how many people berate themselves or have self-esteem problems for not reaching some particular metric of success. To compensate, they do things that unintentionally broadcast their insecurity, for example going deeply into debt to buy a status car instead of a practical one they can afford.

There is an "I'm OK" theme reverberating under the text of this book. And that theme has a counterbalance that is also a theme reverberating under the text of this book. People who pat themselves on the back for their successes without acknowledging other factors besides their own qualities and contributions are delusional. Simple chance plays a great role in how things turn out. This doesn't mean everything is a matter of chance and circumstance, and Gladwell doesn't say it is. But sometimes you can do everything right and not get very far.

The thrust of this book, as I can determine, is this. Successful people become that way by latching onto opportunities and then working hard to take advantage of those opportunities. A corollary is what is not an opportunity for one person is an opportunity for another, due to who they were and where they came from. This doesn't mean using where you came from as an excuse for failure, but matching it with the opportunities that come along and working hard to achieve your goal.

Gladwell's major point (that I see) is a generalization, and it's generally supportable; perhaps you recognize it from Sunday School or from some other childhood training: those who work hard get the rewards, if they work on the things that are right for them and if they seize or make the right opportunities. This is a core concept in our Western civilization, so agreeing with it as Gladwell generally does (he seems to disagree with the "make" part) isn't as loony or absurd as some reviewers would have you believe.

The specifics are a different matter. You can choose to see the forest or just look at the trees in front of you, which gives rise to the observation of strategically blind people, "They can't see the forest for the trees." Gladwell takes a tree approach to describe the forest, and that's where the controversy comes in.

I chose not to get too mired in the weakly presented trees or to argue about whether that forest is the size and composition Gladwell asserts it is. I chose to reflect upon the meta ideas of what Gladwell was saying. That's a powerful takeaway, if you haven't thought about those things for a while. On the particulars, Gladwell may be correct or not but we don't know that from this book because he didn't rigorously defend or even analyze his conclusions on those particulars.

Gladwell's been featured in the business literature, and he is interesting though not definitive. He doesn't have a background that would make him definitive. As with the people in the anecdotes he writes about, he makes the best use of his talents to seize the opportunities presented him. If you haven't yet written three best-sellers and been featured on the cover of Fast Company, perhaps you can learn something from reading this book. Or perhaps not, if you've achieved your personal best in some other way.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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