Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review of Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers

"Lift up your heads," Robert Winthrop told the crowd many years ago at the unveiling of a statue of that great hero of American independence Benjamin Franklin, "and look at the image of a man who rose from nothing, who owed nothing to parentage or patronage, who enjoyed no advantages of early education which are not open—a hundredfold open—to yourselves, who performed the most menial services in the businesses in which his early life was employed, but who lived to stand before Kings, and died to leave a name which the world will never forget." (Outliers p.19)

In a forward to the autobiographical “Winners Never Cheat” Larry King labels Jon Huntsman as “the American Horatio Alger”. While most people enjoy a good “rags-to-riches” American Dream, Malcom Gladwell believes that there is a deeper story behind the simple explanations of success.

King writes that Huntsman was “afforded nothing but an opportunity to compete on the field of dreams and that the rest—his vision, determination, skill, integrity, a few lucky breaks, and ultimate success were up to him.” It’s hard to disagree with the commonly held belief that in order to be successful you need to work hard, plan a vision, and be the talented negotiator, but Gladwell believes that success might be determined more by choice opportunities and cultural legacy than individual abilities. It just turns out that Jon Huntsman was given such an opportunity.

Huntsman grew up in rural Idaho, the son of a school teacher. Jon was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to study at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. While Jon had the work ethic, the grades, and the vision, Gladwell would point out that this special educational opportunity and the thousands of laboratory hours that came with it enabled Huntsman to become one of the first experts in chemical product design for commercial manufacturing. He would go on to start Huntsman Chemical and use the unparalleled training he received creating simple plastic egg cartons to form a multi-billion dollar corporate empire.

The American Dream

“In the autobiographies published every year by the billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit and talent fights his way to greatness. In the Bible, Joseph is cast out by his brothers and sold into slavery and then rises to become the pharaoh's right-hand man on the strength of his own brilliance and insight.” (Outliers, p.18)

The conventional view of success states that people with natural talent will rise to the top. In a world full of scarcity, we must measure highly on generally-accepted tests of ability and compete for the best positions in the best companies. The common theme is convergence: everyone is aiming for the single seat at the top, and there is one right answer to get there.

This leads to a common fallacy: that those at the top must be the best. In a meritocratic society that values the most-accomplished, you would be labeled a heretic to claim that the system gets it wrong. In a perfectly efficient free-market system with rigorous competition, people receive resources according to their potential, and the best and most worthy will succeed regardless of where they start in life.

Turning Success on its Head

In order to test this assumption, Gladwell first turns to sports. He cites researchers who examined successful hockey players and identified a puzzling common factor: the best hockey players are most commonly born in the first three months of the year. After further study the researchers realize that since the age bracket cuts off at December 31st, athletes born in the beginning of the year are older for their class, and at the age of 12 or 13 may be much more physically developed than other peers in their division. This distinction leads them to receive better coaching and more rink time than others, and they rise to the top. This finding is startling: it means that arbitrary rules lurking your organization may be severely limiting your success. Are certain simple hiring standards preventing you from reaching the best talent? Maybe it’s time to examine the incidental rules within your organization and make sure you aren’t artificially limiting yourself.

While many organizations focus on becoming the “best of the best” in their particular field, Gladwell recommends another approach. While it’s always possible to pick the most popular market and rise to the top through competition, divergent organizations will break new ground and become experts in fields for which there is not yet a demand, and over time can accomplish much more than their more traditional counterparts. Gladwell describes how as hostile corporate takeovers became more commonplace, the mid-tier law firms specializing in that subject overtook the “white-shoe” firms on Wall Street. We see this on a global scale today, with traditional corporate auto giants crumbling as they compete for the business of the same billion people, while India’s TATA Motors is figuring out how to make automobiles for the other five billion. In today’s age where ideas outnumber people, the divergent thinkers may win out over the Harvard grads.

Apparently, outliers sometimes come in clusters, instead of sprouting up randomly through time. Gladwell lists the richest men in history and points out the fact that a disproportionate number of them were born in the United States between 1831 and 1840. He also shows that billionaire software developers were born predominantly in the mid 1950’s. Gladwell’s reason for this is that the generation immediately preceding a period of rapid change is poised for big opportunities, and that the experts in their field will be positioned just right to take advantage of circumstances beyond their control.

Gladwell examines the conventional wisdom that inborn ability will win out, by studying popular figures in history. He finds in each case that while all of his examples had some inherent skill, they also happened to become experts in their field before anyone else. For example, by the time Bill Gates founded his first software company in his early twenties, he had logged more time writing code than almost anyone else on the planet. Mozart was a precocious youth, but didn’t write a groundbreaking piece of music until he was twenty years into his career as a composer. Gladwell highlights other, more recent musicians as well: by the time The Beatles signed their first record deal they had logged almost 10,000 hours playing live shows in Hamburg’s new rock-and-roll club scene. Through this and other studies Gladwell concludes that 10,000 is the magic number: work at something for 10,000 hours and you will be world-class, regardless of your inherent ability at the outset.

This throws conventional wisdom on its head: do you hire the best and the brightest, or just the hardest working? Gladwell claims the answer isn’t so simple. Regardless of intelligence or ability, the upper and middle class are born with a sense of entitlement: they are trained to “customize” their surroundings to better suit their needs: to negotiate, banter, and challenge authority, while lower-income children are often raised to fear authority. Middle-class parents also see natural abilities as something to build upon and invest in, while lower-income parents see them as static character traits. As a result, certain “privileged” groups of children are raised with what Gladwell calls “practical intelligence.” They know how to make things happen.

This principle translates well to an organization: not only must you work toward being an outlier through developing world-class skills, you need to experience a series of outlier events that come from cultivating a “practical intelligence” within your institution. Often the ability to fill your organization with people who know how to navigate through red tape, network, or think ahead of the crowd means as much as having an amazingly-skilled workforce.


While reading Malcolm Gladwell is always slightly exhilarating (“how could the world run so counter to my intuition and yet be so understandable?”), somewhere near the halfway mark of the book most readers begin to question how he is able to make such tidy conclusions. Why is it that researchers never see eye to eye on things, but the journalists who report on them understand the world perfectly? As in Gladwell’s other books, the reader has no glimpse into the actual methods used in the studies, and Gladwell has no incentive to declare whether the case studies he uses are generally accepted and supported in the academic literature. This is “social science lite”: not necessarily empty calories, but not JSTOR material either.

Another criticism that will sound familiar to those who read his previous books is that while Gladwell tells a compelling story, he fails to do it in an actionable way. Readers will walk away probably feeling inspired, but a little puzzled as to what they should do to be successful themselves. This is possibly acceptable for a social science crowd[1], but when writing about a topic as pointedly “self-help” as Success, you should throw in some how-to points to satisfy your audience. Gladwell has found a significant following in the business world, so it’s surprising that he hasn’t made his books more instructional. Outliers does appear to have some solid insights that can be applied to organizational strategy, but they’re not packaged in a way that is readily accessible.

The last chapter of Outliers describes how Gladwell’s distant maternal ancestor was purchased by a slave owner in Jamaica, and that their son, John Ford, happened to be born with whiter-than-normal skin that spared him a lifetime of slavery. John Ford’s descendants subsequently inherited an upper-class Jamaican lifestyle and the education that accompanied it, which eventually enabled Gladwell to receive the opportunities and experience he needed to become a successful author. This narrative brings the book full circle and hopefully leads the author to reflect on the fortuitous circumstances that enable today’s and tomorrow’s successes, and the concentrated efforts necessary to achieve excellence.

[1] for example, “Freakonomics” seeks to answer a random assortment of questions and show the general public that economists don’t just predict GDP and unemployment rates all day.

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