January 25, 2009

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (Review)

Posted in Nonfiction, Review tagged , , , , , , , at 1:13 pm by Laura

Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent work of popular nonfiction explores common beliefs of conventional wisdom: Some people are just born to be successful. Superior intelligence and hard work will lead to success. He delves into the surprising reasons behind their accuracy and inaccuracy, telling stories in his conversational style and combining research from many areas of endeavor to make his points.

“The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.” (p. 115 large print edition)

Gladwell tramples the concept of political correctness by dissecting these questions: Why are people of Asian ethnicity so good at math? Why are so many of the highest flying law firms run by individuals of Jewish heritage? Why are some country’s pilots and airlines more prone to in-flight accidents? The suggested answers are both straight-forward and surprising.

“The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on. That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don’t reach forty until they’re five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.” (p. 343-344, large print edition)

It could be argued that Gladwell takes his big ideas from the work of others and doesn’t do a lot of groundbreaking work himself. However, it also could be argued that he exemplifies the skill of synthesis, one of the essential 21st century abilities touted by Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind.

I would recommend this book to fans of Gladwell’s earlier work and to open, curious minds who can momentarily set aside sensitivity in order to see from a different angle. Of particular interest to many will be the exploration of the reasons behind American outlier Bill Gates’ successes in the computer world. Hint: it’s less a meteoric rise than the product of many, many hours of skill-honing work, similar to that of an outstanding classical musician.

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