From the Magazine: “Paradigm shift? Uhm, not really” – A review of the book, ‘Outliers’

by Ahmed Adeyanju

Title: Outliers

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2008) 

Category: Non-fiction

Few books have a buzz around them like Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’. Since it was published in November 2008, there’s been raving reviews about the book and several people have categorically said: “This book will change your life.”

The book attempts to explain why some people, Gladwell calls the ‘Outliers’, are so successful at what they do. We often find it somewhat comforting to believe that successful people have special abilities that make them different. It looks at the biographies of several people, usually twice. At first in a way that confirms all our prejudices about self-made men and then in a way that makes sense of the success in ways we may find much more uncomfortable.

To put it simply, ‘Outliers’ tells me that talent is (although less obvious and much more vague) a synonym for hard work. It is all in the 10,000 hour rule. Spend those numbers of hours practicing anything and you’ll be a genius at it.

First he tells us about ice hockey and the birthdays of the best players. Apparently Gladwell believes there is a registration deadline for being a good hockey player. Next is the argument that your social status influences your chances of greatness. By Gladwell’s theory, If you come from a middle to lower class background, you will probably feel deferent and have a lower sense of entitlement that a person with a more privileged background. This was a very uncomfortable theory for me.

 It is a good book, perhaps even a great one, but the more I think of it, the more ephemeral and superficial the theories it suggests seem. It failed to address an important question – the future. I didn’t get my hoorah there though. The writing also lost me after the first part. A really good book but hardly the life changer it is made out to be.

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  1. The book isn't meant to predict the future, it explains the past and puts the achievements of successful people in contexts of their environments. It explains how Bill Gates or the Beatles or any of the other 'outliers' in the book achieved such resounding success making the process seem entirely human and not supernatural. These successes were as much a product of the person's environment as much as willpower, hardwork and natural skill. Until this book, synopses of success focused on the person, now we see that the environment is an equally important factor – a fact you completely ignored in your review.