Notes on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown, 2008).
When I finished reading this book, I said to myself: "Very interesting. What was this about, again?" Arcane bits of research from psychology, sociology, and business history are woven together so entertainingly, what had seemed to stick with me were some of the fun facts and more compelling story lines--did you know that Roseto, Pennsylvania was renowned in medical circles for its low rate of heart disease, and it had nothing to do with the Mediterranean diet of its Italian immigrant population? That the real reason the Beatles were so great had to do with all of the strip club gigs they played in Hamburg? That most top-notch hockey players from Canada are born in January, February, or March?
But I knew that there was more of a point to the book than that, due to an interview I'd heard with the author on the radio. The "story of success" he wants to tell is not profile after profile of successful individuals who worked hard and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, or who were born with such innate genius that they were destined for greatness. Rather, his idea is to examine statistical outliers--extraordinarily successful (and, in some cases, unsuccessful) individuals and groups--in terms not only of their own efforts but also the social, historical, and cultural contexts in which their behavior occurred.
I was able to remind myself of the book's main topic by skimming back over the individual chapters and composing one-sentence summaries of the main point of each. Here they are:
Introduction: The Roseto Mystery
The anomalous good cardiopulmonary health of the residents of one small town in Pennsylvania is due not to their virtuous diet and exercise habits but rather the mental health (especially the low levels of stress) that they are able to achieve as a community.
PART ONE: OPPORTUNITY
Chapter 1: The Matthew Effect
Some people are born with situational advantages that allow them greater opportunities and access, although these circumstances are often overlooked as they continue to get preferential treatment through childhood and young adulthood due to their ostensibly superior talent and ability. Or, as Billie Holiday sang, "Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose. That's what the Bible says, and it still is news!"
Chapter 2: The 10,000 Hour Rule
There are no shortcuts; it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become truly excellent at something, but that alone is an insufficient condition for success.
Chapter 3: The Trouble With Geniuses, Part I
IQ scores are practically useless for predicting professional success...
Chapter 4: The Trouble With Geniuses, Part II
...what is also required is "practical intelligence" in social situations, which one usually learns (or not) from one's family while growing up.
Chapter 5: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom
Work hard, yes, but it sure does help to be born in the right place, in the right time, with the right family background, even if none of those things seem "right" at the time.
PART TWO: LEGACY
Chapter 6: Harlan, Kentucky
Cultural legacies run deep and long, and we should not be timid about discussing openly how they continue to affect us.
Chapter 7: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes
Cultural attitudes concerning hierarchical authority have real life-or-death consequences in airplane cockpits.
Chapter 8: Rice Paddies and Math Tests
Academic success in subjects like math follows directly in cultures that have developed an ethos of working long hours at meaningful tasks.
Chapter 9: Marita's Bargain
The American educational system does not allow egalitarian access to success due to the institution of long summer vacations, during which rich kids continue to learn and poor ones do not.
Epilogue: A Jamaican Story
The career success of Gladwell's mixed-race mother from Jamaica was due to a series of happy accidents.
I plan to share my opinions about some of this in the next post.