Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Book report #6 (2020)

I read this book with a friend at work; he chose it as something we could each read and then talk about. I should have been wary – the last time I did this, the book was The Tipping Point, also by Malcolm Gladwell. That book was remarkable in that I did learn some new things (albeit very few) but found the writing style almost condescending in tone and more wordy than it needed to be. All the points could have been covered (and likely have been) in a few HBR articles.
This book was nearly identical in tone and length, and followed the same method of lengthy story telling to almost-but-not-quite make a point. After 285 pages, I still do not know what his definition of an outlier is – based on the story, either everyone is or no one is. Which doesn’t help at all to understand how to learn to succeed from these outliers. The alleged purpose of the book is to tell “the story of success”, and it certainly tells a lot of stories of success but none in such a way as you can learn anything from them. How does it help anyone to succeed as a lawyer in New York TODAY to tell (at length) the stories of Jewish male lawyers born in the 1930s who’s success was (with the benefit of hindsight) practically foretold based on their backgrounds, ethnicities, and birthdates?
One of the lessons (apparently) is this: “…if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to you desires.” No kidding!
Another is: “To build a better world, we need (removing a ton of unnecessary words)…a society that provides opportunities for all.” Who would have thought?!
So many things about this book bugged me, but I can narrow them down to two main ones:
  • Around those bloody obvious observations are so many words and endless stories that do not relate to the concept of outliers that if there is a salient point, it is totally lost. In some of the stories, success is because of circumstances, in others it’s in spite of them. So nothing is proven either way.
  • With the exception of one twelve-year-old girl, all of the stories are about men (there is a long chapter about his own mother and her family, but again its not clear if the historical circumstances are relevant or not). I get it that a historical review of successes in business is going to be chock-a-block with old (white) guys, but come on! Condaleeza Rice, Sally Ride, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher (like her or not, she was a success in her field), Sandra Day O’Connor, Coco Chanel, Martha Stewart. I could go on, as could most people, I’m sure. I know this book is >10 years old but almost everyone on my list could have been included, and I’m sure there are plenty more to choose from. Especially since so much of his point is (I think) that culture and upbringing have so much influence on success, the entire factor of gender went unexamined.
Near the end is this infuriating sentence: “The lesson here is very simple.” If it is, then why did it take 280 pages to tell it? And why do I still not understand it?
Overall is this pervasive suggestion that we can create circumstances to make everyone a runaway success. Sorry, but no, we can’t. People are individuals. Influences, circumstances, and opportunities are only part of the story of success – skills, initiative, bravery, and personality are just as important. And so the story of success can only be told, it cannot be manufactured.
Fate: charity shop
#19 – a book with a one word title
#25 – a non-fiction book about science (the graphs and charts and technical jargon qualify this book as “science”)

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