Saturday, September 5, 2009

Book Review: Outliers

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

An interesting book asserting that rather than just latent talent, an individual's success is do to:

  • timing: some people are born at just the right time to take advantage of historical watershed moments (e.g. the PC revolution) or age-based selections (e.g. birthday cut-offs for joining sports teams, schools, etc).
  • practice opportunities: Gladwell asserts that the "universal" requirement for achieving expertise is 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell further asserts that successful individuals have often been given abnormal opportunities to obtain that amount of practice in a short period of time and at an early age.
  • environment: the amount of nurture and support that a person receives from his family and community has a significant effect on their success. This includes parents teaching their children how to be assertive, and actively guide their own lives.
  • culture: cultural values and behaviors can have a profound effect on an individual's level of success.

To some degree, Outliers reminded me of other recent readings:

  • In the Black Swan, Taleb asserted that individual success in "scalable" fields was due primarily to luck and a rich-get-richer effect. In Outliers I think Gladwell provides a compelling explanation for that phenomenon in his focus on lucky opportunities for obtaining expertise.
  • The StudyHacks blog ran a post on how one person successfully entered the music industry by selecting a single nightclub to perform at and then focused all their energy on becoming the best performer at that venue. To me this resonated strongly with Gladwell's assertion that opportunities for obtaining 10,000 hours of practice are one of the keys to success.

So, there appears to be supporting opinions for some of Gladwell's assertions. Personally, I suspect that he is on the right track.

I enjoyed the first half of the book but found the second halves multi-generational discussion weaker as I suspect a "lucky event" can be found in everyone's family history if you go back a few generations.

Being a computer geek, I enjoyed the brief biographies on both Bill Joy and Bill Gates. I had no idea that Gates had so much programming experience before going to college. By all appearances both Bills had rare opportunities to become expert programmers at just the right age to ride the PC technology wave.

Some of the excerpts that I dog-earned were:

  • Page 11: … the values of the world we inhabit and the people that we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.
  • Page 42: (regarding the assertion that 10,000 hours of practice are required to become an expert at any particular skill) … ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time. It's all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you're a young adult. … In fact most people can only reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program … or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them the chance to put in those hours.
  • Page 149: Those three things - autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward - are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.
  • Page 267: … success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. … Nor is success simply the sum of decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities - and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

Upon reflection, I reduced (perhaps too far?) the book's message down to the following three points:

  1. Pick a meaningful skill and practice it as much as possible.
  2. Maximize your exposure to opportunities that require the chosen skill to be successful and provide more practice.
  3. Aggressively pursue the opportunities that you come across to extract the most value from them.

Over all a good book, and worth the time to read it.