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Outliers: The Story of Success - Book Review

1 November 2009

Dr. Moria Levy

"Outliers: The Story of Success," penned by Malcolm Gladwell in 2008 and translated into Hebrew by Sarah Rypin in 2009, is an international non-fiction bestseller. It delves into the intriguing question of what leads to greatness and success. Contrary to the conventional belief that talent is the primary factor, the book contends that talent holds only partial significance. Instead, it emphasizes the crucial roles of opportunity (luck) and heritage (culture).


The book emphasizes understanding the qualities and skills associated with opportunity and heritage. Notably, it sheds light on components within our control, such as investment, teamwork, and maturity. These, along with opportunity and legacy, are key to achieving success. The book argues that opportunities often make these qualities possible, and heritage can influence our behaviors, steering us toward or away from excellence.


The qualities influencing success and excellence may not be surprising, but the book emphasizes their unexpected weight compared to talent. It is presented reader-friendly, offering numerous examples that support the author's claims.


The book covers the following topics:

  • Investment and diligence – the 10,000 hours rule

  • Ripe

  • IQ (with a grain of salt)

  • Practical intelligence

  • Winning ambition

  • Meaningful work

  • Timing

  • Media culture

  • Responsibility

  • Patience

  • Education and discipline

  • Community


Highly recommended for its narrative style and enlightening examples, "Outliers" concludes with a call to create an environment that provides opportunities for all. Doing so can contribute to building a more prosperous world in numerous ways. Happy reading.


Investment and diligence – the 10,000 hours rule

Achieving success becomes a plausible outcome for anyone committing 10,000 hours to training. While we acknowledge the correlation between investment and success, Gladwell illuminates the true significance of this component. As he navigates through examples, he underscores that innate talent is diminishing in importance, emphasizing the pivotal role of training and investment.


Gladwell presents compelling examples, such as Bill Gates' teenage years, marked by seizing a series of opportunities that allowed him to accumulate around 10,000 hours of programming, a rare feat in the 1970s. Bill Joy, the influential developer of Linux and Java, invested substantial hours in front of a computer during his youth, reaping opportunity and luck in his endeavors. In the realm of computers, where success hinges less on status, connections, or wealth and more on sheer competence, this phenomenon is starkly evident.


The correlation between success in music and the hours dedicated to practice is evident in well-known studies, including the early mediocre works of Mozart. Yet, the Beatles' story is particularly intriguing. Touring Hamburg five times between 1960 and 1962, they accumulated 10,000 hours of performance and training, transforming from a mediocre group to a globally renowned band only after that. While the enormity of this number might be challenging to grasp, it represents a rare opportunity that few encounter in their lifetimes.

Investment, however, demands diligence. As evidenced by the saying about Chinese rice farmers, "It is inconceivable that a man who can get up before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year will not bring wealth to his family." Here, opportunity intertwines with coincidence, as each person mentioned had an opportunity that catalyzed their investment. Cultural heritage plays a partial role; beyond personal traits, some societies are deemed industrious due to historical and geographical factors (as illustrated by an example of Chinese heritage).


Making an impact necessitates perseverance and investment. The connection between education, desire, and substantial investment emerges as a pathway to success.


Ripe

Through a series of statistical studies, Gladwell uncovers a compelling revelation: in elite sports teams, a notable concentration of births in specific months varies across professions and countries. An illustrative example is the Ontario Hockey League, where January births outnumber any other month by fivefold. This phenomenon is linked to maturity, as each country designates a particular month for teenagers to take entrance exams to sports leagues. Those born in the month of the test and the oldest within the testing age group have a higher likelihood of success. Consequently, in Ontario, following January births, the highest number occurs in February, then March.


This discrepancy in birth months signifies that the maturity levels between a 10-year-old and one who is almost 11 but falls within the same age group can be significantly different. The older individual is more likely to secure a place in the group. The variation in birth months influencing success differs across professions and locations, reflecting the distinct testing schedules in each place and field.


This observation presents an opportunity. Making an impact can be achieved on a broader scale, such as keeping a child in kindergarten for an additional year to enhance their chances of success in a higher grade. At the national level, influence can be exerted through strategies like two- or three-year testing in sports or creating sub-age groups in academic studies based on the calendar.


IQ (with a grain of salt)

Through a series of statistical studies, Gladwell uncovers a compelling revelation: in elite sports teams, a notable concentration of births in specific months varies across professions and countries. An illustrative example is the Ontario Hockey League, where January births outnumber any other month by fivefold. This phenomenon is linked to maturity, as each country designates a particular month for teenagers to take entrance exams to sports leagues. Those born in the month of the test and the oldest within the testing age group have a higher likelihood of success. Consequently, in Ontario, following January births, the highest number occurs in February, then March.


This discrepancy in birth months signifies that the maturity levels between a 10-year-old and one who is almost 11 but falls within the same age group can be significantly different. The older individual is more likely to secure a place in the group. The variation in birth months influencing success differs across professions and locations, reflecting the distinct testing schedules in each place and field.


This observation presents an opportunity. Making an impact can be achieved on a broader scale, such as keeping a child in kindergarten for an additional year to enhance their chances of success in a higher grade. At the national level, influence can be exerted through strategies like two- or three-year testing in sports or creating sub-age groups in academic studies based on the calendar.

Practical intelligence

We commonly recognize the influence of IQ on our success. Still, Gladwell introduces us to a series of studies that reveal the partial nature of the relationship between IQ and success. While a sufficient IQ is requisite in every field, surpassing this threshold does not confer a significant advantage over peers. For instance, a scientist with an IQ of 130 has an equal chance of winning the Nobel Prize as a scientist with an IQ of 180. The crucial point is that the 130 IQ "provides."


This principle extends to various domains, urging us to regard IQ with a grain of salt. Organizations seeking individuals with potential must go beyond the IQ test, incorporating additional assessments that better indicate success. This presents an opportunity for a nuanced approach.


Having a high IQ is an inherent trait, something one possesses inherently. Making a meaningful impact involves recognizing the limitations of IQ, understanding the satisfaction conditions, and leveraging other aspects that contribute to success.


Winning ambition

The concept of aspiring to victory is nearly self-evident. Rare are the instances where someone with a lofty goal of triumph encounters impediments. The writer illustrates this with an example of a man who gained admission to Harvard Law School without a degree and is by no means the sole exemplar of such instances.


Regarding this as an opportunity might not resonate with everyone. Making a significant impact involves recognizing that desire is an unstoppable force. Remember, nothing stands in the way of determined aspirations.


Meaningful work

Engaging in a meaningful job enhances our chances of success. It becomes easier for us to invest more in our work, driven by fulfilling our needs, and propels us to go further. This outcome is unsurprising. The text draws examples from both the world of Jewish immigrants in the United States and farms in China.


Whether this is viewed as an opportunity varies depending on the context. It also intertwines with cultural heritage sometimes, such as the historical engagement of Jews in specific crafts due to circumstances. Making a significant impact involves considering these factors when choosing a profession and work.


Timing

Some will assert that timing is crucial in everything we do. The author illustrates this point with a collection of examples, showcasing how law firms that invested in a particular field became industry leaders in the United States due to a newfound demand, leveraging their honed skills over the years. "It's not that these firms were smarter lawyers than anyone else... But they had a skill they had been working on for years, and suddenly it became precious." Similar instances abound, such as Jews immigrating to the United States and finding success in the clothing industry.


Regarding this as an opportunity is unequivocal. However, making a direct impact is only sometimes within our control. It is essential to acknowledge that luck also plays a role, and not everything is entirely under our influence.


Media culture

In an expansive chapter on media culture, Gladwell recounts a compelling narrative revealing a direct correlation between countries with high plane crash rates and those with deeply ingrained hierarchical communication norms. Countries where junior members hesitate to express opinions, subtly convey intentions, or refrain from reiterating messages—even when suspecting the listener may not fully grasp the information—experience significantly higher plane crash rates than those with a less formal media culture.


The conclusions are evident: communication issues are not necessarily the root cause of flight failures. However, teamwork increases the likelihood of uncovering unnoticed glitches, identifying opportunities, or offering new perspectives. An open communication culture fosters success, and the converse holds.


Is this a result of cultural heritage? Yes, but not exclusively. The communication culture extends beyond the cultural characteristics of countries and peoples. Can one make an impact? The answer here is also affirmative. Gladwell shares the story of a Korean airline in the late 2000s that underwent a revolutionary transformation following numerous aircraft accidents. The solutions primarily centered around communication: pilots were required to be proficient in English to comprehend air traffic controllers in different countries fully, and this linguistic proficiency facilitated a transformation in crew dialogue. Positive results followed swiftly.


Is it a matter of cultural heritage? So. Can one make an impact? It is indeed possible, albeit challenging, given that communication culture is deeply embedded within us.


Responsibility

Agricultural practices varied in nature across different regions of application. In Europe, peasants toiled as quasi-slaves under landlords, with minimal discretion granted to them in executing their work. Conversely, in Japan and China, cultivating rice in small family-owned plots afforded both autonomy and responsibility to the farmers. This same autonomy and commitment were evident among New York Jewish immigrants engaged in needlework.


The conclusion is that a direct correlation between effort and reward enhances the likelihood of success. While not revolutionary, the subtle influence of cultural heritage on this connection is not immediately apparent. There is indeed a connection to cultural heritage. However, the degree of autonomy and responsibility is influenced by factors beyond heritage, yet it becomes evident that cultural heritage plays a definitive role.


Can one make an impact? Indeed, at the personal, family, and team management levels. Although the book does not delve into specifics, it is apparent that in the contemporary age of knowledge, effective managers strive to decentralize responsibility and authority to knowledge workers, affording them significant autonomy in task execution.


Patience

Many assume that specific individuals are naturally inclined to study mathematics, while most do not. Consequently, patience in problem-solving may not seem like a pertinent factor for success in mathematics. However, Gladwell presents studies in mathematics indicating a direct correlation between the time students are willing to invest in solving a problem before giving up and their level of success. Additionally, in TIMMS tests (installation tests), a questionnaire accompanies the test with 120 questions about the students, including their parent's education level, peers' attitudes toward mathematics, and more. Surprisingly, a direct relationship was discovered between the ability to complete the questionnaire and excellence on the TIMSS test.


Is there a connection to cultural heritage? Partially, yes. Countries such as Singapore, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Japan topped the list of honors. Can one make an impact? Indeed, patience is a skill that can be cultivated.


Education and discipline

Gladwell considers education a crucial factor for success, narrating the story of KIPP, a school in the southern borough of the Bronx that admits students from New York's poorest neighborhoods. Admission requirements include adhering to the school's discipline and tasks. Students at KIPP dedicate more hours to studying each day, have shorter vacations (only a few weeks for summer vacation), and maintain disciplined and respectful classroom behavior. The school's approach emphasizes directives like "Smile, sit up straight, listen, ask questions, nod when spoken to, and follow your eyes." Nine years after its establishment, the school is recognized for its exceptional performance, particularly in mathematics. The success is attributed to education, discipline, and significant investment, without relying on innate talent, social status, or favorable home conditions. Notably, five schools are operating in the United States following the same format.


It remains vague regarding cultural heritage, but culture is undoubtedly created within the school's confines. Making an impact is unquestionable, as demonstrated by the possibility of establishing schools, organizations, and businesses with a similar ethos.


Community

Individuals residing in close-knit communities, within multigenerational families that invest time in meaningful dialogue, enjoy higher chances of longevity and good health. Gladwell references a study of the Roseto townspeople, aiming to discern the primary factors contributing to longevity and a lower incidence of heart attacks. Interestingly, the answers were not found in genes or proper nutrition. It wasn't due to a lack of continued work at an older age either. The study concluded that longevity was intricately linked to the community's dynamics. Those who engaged in regular family gatherings, shared meals across generations, and interacted within the community tended to live longer.


Is there a connection to heritage? Absolutely. Making an impact is undoubtedly possible, especially within smaller groups. Individuals can positively influence their longevity and well-being by fostering a meaningful community and family life.

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