Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers: The Story of Success

Malcom Gladwell
285 pages

Outliers had been recommended to me on a number of occasions, and by the time I finally picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. The title of the book is somewhat misleading to its overall premise: the premise that many outliers who’ve risen to incredible success are really the beneficiaries of larger external influences, good circumstances, and excellent timing. The book discusses various unique subjects ranging from cultural influences in airplane crashes to the birth months of Canadian hockey players. It’s a fascinating read all the way through.

One of his best chapters described why Asians are so good at math, citing the greater simplicity in the Asian language as it relates to interpreting numbers. I never thought of it this way, but the numbers “eleven” and “twelve” are quite odd in the English language. Most Asian languages don’t have these discrepancies and thus numbers are easier to understand and interpret. Another factor was the rice paddy culture of Asian farmers. Rice paddies are much more exacting to cultivate compared to European agriculture, and this additional required effort translates into the Asian work ethic. This can be seen in the form of longer school years and parent-enforced supplemental schooling on top of that.

My favorite link was made between successful Silicon Valley icons and a relatively small timeframe in history. From 1953 to 1956, it was “convenient” to be born because it put you in your early twenties at the beginning of the very first computer technology revolution. Note the names and the birthdays below:

Paul Allen: January 21, 1953
Steve Jobs: February 24, 1955
Eric Schmidt: April 27, 1955
Bill Gates: October 28, 1955
Steve Ballmer: March 24, 1956

The most profound chapter for me was the “10,000 Hour Rule.” 10,000 is somewhat of an arbitrary number (this is roughly the amount of hours you could fully devote yourself to one passion within a period of ten years). The overall principle, however, is both sound and humbling.

Great successes in this world, such as the Beatles or Bill Gates, have clearly put in more than 10,000 hours towards their passions and have the fruits of their labor to show for it. They don’t make excuses. They don’t have issues with their ego. They simply focus and work hard. Nothing is more important.

This really spoke to me because I often feel I’m half-assing both my career and my aspirations. I’ll buy books and not read them. I’ll pretend to be an expert after reading a Business Week article (old consulting habit). The best way to fight my own career insecurities is to have the expertise to back it up. And that expertise won’t come until I’ve put in the hours; there are no substitutes.

The two major lessons I learned from this book are as follows:

1. Timing is everything. Life is often like a giant lottery with few things we actually can control.  Some of the major factors in our life, whether they are unfair or not, we must learn to accept over time.

2. Nothing takes the place of hard work. While Outliers shows us that the some of the great successes in this world were due in large part to chance and circumstance, the amount of effort we exert is something we DO control. While the successful people in this world may have had luck on their side, they never would’ve gotten there without hard work as well.

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