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April 2, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

Why are successful people successful? This is the question that Malcolm Gladwell sets out to answer in Outliers, and his answer—like most things he writes—is extremely interesting.

Successful people, he says, succeed simply because they get lucky. Unsuccessful people fail because they do not get lucky. But this does not gel with what received wisdom tells us. If you work hard and “apply yourself”, aren’t you supposed to be able to succeed, no matter what?

For Gladwell, the answer is a resounding no. Success is largely predetermined by factors such as demographic trends, family situation and cultural background.

How, for example, could a man like Chris Langan fail to be successful? Langan is reputed to be the “smartest man in America” with an IQ of around 200—yet he works as a nightclub bouncer and has failed to have any of his amateur academic papers published.

Gladwell surmises that this is because of his family background. Langan was raised in poverty by an abusive stepfather, and therefore failed to develop the social skills that he needed to charm and cajole his way through university or into academic journals.

This is the general theme of Outliers: your innate talent doesn’t actually matter that much. Rather, your success and failure can be predicted simply by looking your circumstances.

Being born at a time of low birthrates, for example, leads to labour shortages which makes finding a job later on much easier. Far from being a function of your own hard work, success is more often due to underlying structural factors over which we have little control.

Outliers isn’t perfect, though. Gladwell too often draws tenuous links between his “data”—which is usually just a single anecdote—and his conclusions. This isn’t really a problem, though, because he is writing primarily to entertain, and Outliers is certainly entertaining. I ploughed hungrily through most of it in a single sitting. A truly rigorous analysis would require endless tables, charts, and figures, and this would get in the way of what Gladwell does best—telling great stories in a lively, informative way.


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