Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Often when we see an extraordinarily successful person, we attribute their grand accomplishments to their natural ability and talent. IE...he's just a genius.
But what if success is less about innate talent and more about pure dumb luck? What if our success is as much a function of chance as it is our uniqueness?
Many of the examples cited in Gladwell's book perfectly illustrate the role that external forces play with respect to our achievements. For example, he cites examples from sports in which age cut-offs are used to group athletes as a means to make his point. Clearly, at certain ages some older boys may have a physical advantage over their teammates, especially around the ages of typical puberty. I have three sons who all play baseball, and I've seen this at work. My oldest son was always a little better and bigger than his peers, even though he was not the oldest kid. Then many of his peers started to go through puberty, when he did not. He went from being the largest kid...to the smallest. He started moving down in the line-up, got less playing time, got to pitch less. He just couldn't compete with some of these boys who now had full-beards.
Ironically, at 17, though still behind the curve in some respects, he is again the tallest boy. While some of his teammates peaked at 12, he still hasn't. Unfortunately, in some respects the damage may already be done. For many years, he was denied opportunity, not based on raw ability or talent or even potential, but based on his size at a specific time...or lack of it, thanks to his genetics. He's a late bloomer, now 6 foot 3 and still growing, however, he has missed opportunities throughout his development due to falling behind the curve.
Along the same line, my 3rd son and 4th child has had only a fraction of the opportunity to play a sport as his two older brothers have had. I mean, I had four kids in five years. By the time number four came along we were pretty busy, and as a result, our youngest has had a lot less opportunity to excel in a sport than his brothers, purely because he was the youngest. There is simply less time and money. Also less enthusiasm and support from us. I often wonder if he would be a better ball player if he had been born first and had had the opportunities his older brothers have had?
The point is that when we pick winners and losers, it has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In short, whether or not talent is nurtured is often influenced by many factors outside an individual's control.
This is true in education as well, and really in many areas of achievement.
Research I've read in other books has also shown that a teacher's attitude about a student's ability, can in fact impact how they ultimately perform.
In that sense, ability and talent is often ignored because where a child is in development can impact our perceptions about innate ability and talent.
Gladwell further explores the role of opportunity by referencing Bill Gates, who, thanks to dumb luck, had unique opportunities that ultimately may have given him an edge that had he been denied could have changed everything.
Clearly, Gladwell isn't trying to deny that people like Gates are extremely smart, talented, or even destined for some sort of success. Instead he is pointing out that innate ability and potential are only a part of it. The world is constantly shaping us in ways that we can't take credit for.
I wished Gladwell would've talked more about the ability to see and capitalize on opportunity as being a factor. If that is true...it's more than just dumb luck or opportunity. It's our ability to see the opportunity which again might reflect an innate ability that some of us have and that others may lack.
All in all, an interesting read about the outliers among us and some of the forces that help to create and shape them.