Last week I was reading some Amazon.com reviews of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers, both the positive (the majority) and the negative ones (about 30% gave 3 stars or less). I like a bit of controversy, so started off with the negative ones. If they can convince me I often do not buy the book. Gladwell is known for writing entertainment covered with a scientific sauce, as you probably know if you read his two bestsellers Blink and The Tipping Point. If I would buy Outliers I would not expect a dry scientific book that weighs all the pros and cons from the available literature to come to a conclusion, but apparently that is what some reviewers were expecting.
Especially the top negative (1 star) review was interesting: this review focuses on the the superficial treatment of the term outlier without a historical background, a dubious citation list with lots of URL’s instead of real books, and on the fact that other books address similar issues in a much better way. Not very convincing to me, because these are arguments that might be important for a scientific work, but not necessarily for a popular semi-scientific entertainment book. However, 80% of the readers who rated this review found it helpful. I wonder if they ever read another book of Gladwell before, because they all seem to have their expectations wrong.
Anyway, because I like Gladwell’s writing style I decided to buy the book and went off to the Chaterhouse bookstore in Times Square during lunch the next day. But as happens more often at this mediocre book store (but still the best English language store in Shanghai), they did not carry the book. Ordering it through Amazon did not make sense, because that takes at least 2-3 weeks and I did not want to wait that long. So I decided to download the audio book instead. That was a good decision, but after listening to about 1 hour of the total of 7 hours I decided that reading the book is much better than listening to it on an iPod. Then I got the brain wave to buy the e-book for my iLiad reader, something I should have thought of a lot earlier already of course. So yesterday I downloaded the book and I finished it in one day.
After downloading the book I immediately received a Twitter message from someone saying that the book was not worth the time, but after finishing the book within one day I totally disagree. It’s a fun read and I really enjoyed the couple of hours that it took me to read. Outliers explains why successful people became successful and it show that it is not just talent or hard work. Of course that’s a major part of it, without a lot of talent and putting in a lot of effort you cannot become an outlier (an extremely successful person such as Bill Gates). But it is not sufficient, you need more.
This books shows what some of the things are that may make a major difference, for example the month in which you are born determines if you can become a successful hockey player in Canada (read the book for the explanation). Also your year of birth is important, it is not by coincidence that Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Eric Schmidt (Sun, Novell, Google) were all born in 1955. No worries, this is not related to astrology.
But also the culture you were raised in is an important determinant, and explains why so many Air Korea planes used to crash (and in case you read this while on a Korean plane, it also explains why this is not the case anymore). Your family, its values and your parents jobs all play a big role as well (I will keep this in mind while raising Scott). And of course pure luck, being at the right place at the right time several times in a row. The main conclusion is that you cannot copy other peoples behavior to become an outlier as well, it’s a lot more than being smart and working hard.
Very entertaining with lots of interesting trivia that can be useful in party conversations. Sure, not a major scientific work but fun to read anyway. The right book for a lazy weekend or a relaxed day a the pool.