Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” – book review

This is the first Malcolm Gladwell book that I’ve read and I have to say that it was a pleasure. Outliers is a book that can easily be devoured in one sitting: it is written in an incredibly well-organized, coherent manner with clear and easily understandable sentences. I now understand why Facebook keeps advertising writing classes with Malcolm Gladwell. I’m tempted.

Outliers deals with one of mankind’s favourite subjects: genius. Gladwell’s thesis is that genius is determined not only by the person’s inherent qualities (such as willpower and IQ) but crucially also by external circumstances (some as random as a simple date of birth). It turns IQ matters, but only up to a certain point: around 130. If you get to 130, you’re just as likely to win a Nobel Prize as a person with 195 (this is probably bad news for Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory).

The first chapter of Gladwell’s book investigates why most of Canada’s best ice hockey players were born in January. After all, the teams’ selection practice is supposed to be based on merit, not on one’s month of birth? Yet it turns out that if you select team members based on merit from a very early age, the month of the student’s birth is an important factor. The kids born earlier in the year will be stronger and more coordinated than the rest of their year group. They will get chosen into better sports teams, and work harder on improving their skills. By the time they are in their twenties, it is highly likely that the kids born earlier in the year are actually better at ice hockey than their peers. So even in a system explicitly based on merit, random factors play an important role.

And there’s more: Gladwell investigates why so many of the people who became Silicon Valley millionaires were born around 1955, why South Korean airlines had to retrain their pilots, and why there are so many famous Jewish law firms in New York.

This is not a strictly a “how to” book – you won’t learn how to become a hugely successful genius from here. But it is an attempt to reframe how we approach genius: and as such, I think it is a huge success. That’s not to say that I won’t be reading any biographies of famous and brilliant men and women from now on: after all, it’s the quincentenary of Leonardo da Vinci death this year). But I will try to think of how well they grasped the opportunities they had, rather than simply gushing enthusiastically about their inborn talent.

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