Gordon Book Review Blog

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

outlierMalcolm Gladwell’s Outliers provided fertile ground for our April meeting, but our discussion trended toward validating our respective support systems for our children…providing good parental support  seemed to be the tipping point of outlier success for some of the examples in the book.

We began by asking Dan when the hockey star was born.  Sure enough, March.  And his brother Jeff, only a couple months later.  Rob, on the other hand, leading pee-wee scorer, was a December anomaly and Mal, late October.  Dan confirmed that the age difference in hockey is real, and most agreed that in other sports early positioning leads to higher expectations and better opportunities from an early age, and continuing right into high school. 

But Jeff challenged the premise, and the origin, of Gladwell’s thesis.   He just wasn’t picked for the travel team!  The pyramid has only so much room at the top.

We also challenged the science, and the math of Outliers.  It seemed that some of the anecdotes came first, and statistics back-analyzed to prove the initial premise.   Indeed, with any situation with multiple variables contributing to a final result, if one set of differentiators (birth months) were removed, the results might change, but there would still be a distribution with only so many winners and so many runners up.   What about the runners up?  What about all those in the middle 80% of the bell curve?

Outliers is not so much about statistical outliers as explaining the unusual set of circumstances that converge to help the best to the top of the pile.   However, the recurring theme of hard work, diligence, hours (10,000 hours if you want to be the best), and support are factors we all have tried to instill in our children.  Rob really liked knowing that the Beatles put their 10.000 hours in Hamburg.  No wonder they were so great.

As to cultural factors, we all agreed that cultural factors with European or Asian origins tend to dissipate today in America within a generation or two.  America may have its own set of cultural influences, but fewer today than in the past, and way fewer than in closed societies such as China.

In spite of some shortcomings, the book forced us to think in new ways about some things: can society help people held back by dysfunctional families?  Do we have to accept that the squeaky wheel always gets the grease?  Is educational opportunity really a zero sum game (we did not agree on that one).   Outliers could have had more statistical math, possibly at the expense of readership, but the understanding of cultural differences helped us get to a better understanding of how important cultural perspectives, communication and access to opportunity are to success in life. 

Overall a good book for discussion and understanding how the world’s top performers evolve.

Geoff Gordon

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