Sunday, March 01, 2009

Book Review - Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I probably enjoyed this book more than any other I've read recently. Gladwell has written a couple of other tomes I've read; The Tipping Point and Blink. But Outliers jumps to the top of my favorite list for him, and one of the best "aha" moment books for me.

The book's stated purpose is to identify what makes one person (or group) successful and one not. It examines two large ideas--opportunity and culture--and their impact on our success.

Now we USAmericans really like to believe that everyone has equal advantage. We believe in the concept that people (and their success) is by and large a factor of their work ethic and attitude. Sure, your natural ability may provide some limitation (if you're 5'4" playing in the NBA is probably unrealistic) but we can find ample anecdotal evidence of people who were told they were too short/stupid/poor/etc to succeed at a particular task but overcame all odds and succeeded anyway. And we like to think that is us.

Gladwell points out you might as well be planning to win the lottery, cuz the odds are against you.

In the first section, he deals with opportunity. Does everyone have the same opps for success? Again, we want to say yes, believe yes, but in our honest moments we have to answer no. Did you know that 14 of the 75 wealthiest people in the history of the world were Americans born between 1830 and 1835? Why would that be? Because they were just the right age to take advantage of the post-Civil War boom of economy in the US. How about that the 10 founders of the largest, most successful software firms in the US were born between 1950 and 1955? All of them. The world came together to give them opps that others simply did not have.

Maybe the most intriguing example is elite Canadian hockey. If you examine the birthdates of the best players in the late teen clubs, you will find that about half were born in January, February or March. Luck of the draw? Not a chance. January 1st is the cutoff date for age of being on one year's team vs the previous years. Kids born in the last quarter of the year are nearly a year younger than those born in the first quarter. Now at the age of 18, that's probably not a significant difference. But these kids started playing organized hockey when they were old enough to skate, and when you're 5 on Jan 2nd vs Dec 14th, it makes a HUGE difference. So in the younger years, those born in the first 3 months get identified as the best players. They get put on the best teams with the best coaches, and get more practice and game experience as they grow up. If you were born in the last quarter of the year, your odds of a successful hockey career are significantly reduced.

This has incredible implications for parenting, for education, for sports, for all kinds of leadership development issues. We are subconciously giving better opps to certain kids for no other reason than the month they were born in. Are there exceptions? Of course. But they are exceptions.

One implication I thought about a lot in reading this is how we at Buckner develop solutions for the 145 million orphans in the world. How do we really provide the right kinds of opportunities for these kids to succeed in the world?

In my next post, I'll deal with the second half of the book, the cultural factors of success.


Kyle Burkholder said...

agreed with your whole review. gladwell has the midas quill.

interestingly, i am now halfway through a book called "fooled by randomness". it is a great next step for those who like outliers. check it out...

Kyle Burkholder said...

also, how does one get in your blogroll? bribes? groveling? i am ready to do what it takes. :-)

Arnie Adkison said...

LOL on the blogroll question. I guess you have to not delete your blog for a few months then abruptly put it back up. It used to be there.

But bribes are always good for soothing such conflicts. See Proverbs 17.8.

I'll add "Fooled by Randomness" to the list. Right now I'm reading "Rock, Paper, Scissors" and it's pretty good too.

Kyle Burkholder said...

ooh, sounds interesting.

don't forget to look into "becoming the answer to our prayers" by claiborne. another interesting read.