Malcolm Gladwell’s View Through his Own Looking Glass

If you haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, I suggest you start with Outliers The Story of Success. I have been a big fan of his ever since I read Blink and Tipping Point.  But as much as I love those books, I really want to encourage those who have not yet encountered his work to start with Outliers.  

Gladwell’s unique world view is evidenced by his lengthy explanation of why a disproportionate
percentage of the very best professional hockey players are born in January through March and almost none are born in December.  The reason, according to Gladwell is that when each grade of children is introduced to hockey, the oldest children in that grade level are more physically mature than the children born later in the calendar year.  They  become, from the beginning, the best players. They are encouraged in the sport.  They receive extra coaching, extra practice time and extra playing time. The best within that group are elevated to the premiere hockey teams, where they play against stiffer competition, and are able to gain the skills essential to become competitive at the highest levels of the sport.  Meanwhile, the youngest players, those born in November and December, lag behind because they are–well–younger and never given the opportunities or encouragement to excel.

Gladwell approaches the remainder of his book in similar fashion.  He focuses on what it is that enhances the opportunities of “extremely successful people,” i.e., Bill Gates among others. He identifies the importance not only of the month of one’s birth, but the year. He explains why an individual born in 1954 and 1955 had significantly enhanced opportunities to excel in computers sciences.  He talks about the importance of mentoring, of access to education, to employment opportunities and to the opportunity to practice, practice, practice.

While he does not discount the importance of intelligence and hard work, he focuses on the advantages individuals gain due to financial security, family connections and even summer academic opportunities. He also addresses the disadvantages and hardships that can stand in the way of success: limited access to education, the life long impact of being burdened with debt and poverty.  He never, ever discounts the role of luck in the good fortunes of extremely successful people.  He also never discounts that luck without hard work is not enough.

In a book that is considered to be at least somewhat autobiographical, he addresses the circumstances of his own success, starting with the story as to how his ancestors moved from slavery to opportunity.

While much of the book deals with the luck that will benefit few of his readers,  the stories and the examples of individuals and groups who study hard, work hard and create their own opportunities are more than worth the read. While much of what he writes seems obvious after I read it, Outliers gives new insight into the impact of luck, class and even intergenerational family values and experiences.

It is one of my favorite books.  I wish you “good reading.”