Thursday, January 1, 2009

Book Review: Outliers

I mentioned a while back that intended to put up a book review of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.   (And if you haven't got around to reading Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker about selecting NFL QBs it's worth a read.  I have a post about it here.)

The premise of Outliers is that the extremely successful (Bill Gates and the Beatles are two of his example) were successful primarily because they were "lucky."  In Bill Gates's case he was fortunate to attend one of the only high schools in the world that had access to a mainframe computer.  In the case of the Beatles, they spent years playing music day after day in eight hour shifts in strip clubs in Germany.  Then, when the world needed computer programmers and rock stars, Bill Gates and the Beetles had an advantage over all other candidates because they developed a proficiency that few others (if any) had developed.

Gladwell's stated goal is to debunk the American myth of the "self-made man" made popular in Horatio Algers stories.  Outliers is packed with interesting anecdotes,  but they don't really add up to support his central thesis.  For example, Gladwell quotes Bill Gates:

It was my obsession....I skipped athletics.  I went up there at night.  We were programming on weekends.  It would be a rare week when we wouldn't get twenty of thirty hours in.  There was a period where Paul Allen and I got in trouble for stealing a bunch of passwords and crashing the system.  We got kicked out.  I didn't get to use the computer for the whole summer.  This is when I was fifteen or sixteen and sixteen.  Then I found out Paul found a computer that was free at the University of Washington.  They had these machines in their  medical center and physics departments.  They were on a twenty four hour schedule, but with this big slack period, so that between three and six in the morning they never scheduled anything.  I'd leave at night, after my bedtime. Or I'd take the bus.

This does not sound like mere good fortune to me.  That sounds like a lot of hard work.

Another problem is that the anecdotes are cherry picked.  We never get the complete picture of the about obstacles and roadblocks that his subjects faced.  In Bill Gates's case we find out that he was kicked out of a computer lab so he started to sneak out at night without his parents' permission to log hours at the University of Washington.  A nerd with less perseverance might have moved on to model rocketry or writing Lord of the Rings fan-fiction or something.  But that is really the only obstacle that we find out about in the book.  I suspect that someone could write a book about only the roadblocks, obstacles, and misfortune suffered by the people Galdwell writes about.  

Gladwell also has an entire chapter about the "10,000 Hour Rule."  The 10,000 hour rule states that acquiring expertise in anything requires 10,000 hours of practice.  But, nobody accumulates 10,000 hours of practice by being fortunate.  It takes hard work.

Although he doesn't say it this way, his book shows that to be successful at anything requires a lot of hard work, but to extremely successful (an outlier) takes ton a hard work and good fortune.  But I don't think that conclusion is nearly as controversial or insightful as Gladwell thinks it is.


  1. I have not read the book, but I am in general skeptical of those who try to sell books with theories that attempt to find these larger trends or truths in things that have recently taken place.

    I don't disagree with your general premise, but I think the phrase I would substitute for your "hard work is "passion." To someone with passion for a certain activity, it really isn't hard work at all, although it would be to someone without that passion. When I'm working on a matter that I'm passionate about, it hardly seems like work at all; it's not necessarily play, but one thing it isn't is hard work, even though it may seem like it to someone else. Similarly, I don't think Bill Gates snuck into the computer labs to program because he felt the need to work hard to prepare himself to found Miscrosoft; I think he did it because he had a passion for computers and programming.

    His good fortune, if you will, was being the right guy in the right place at the right time, to be able to use what he learned from pursuing that passion into something that people we willing to pay a lot of money for. Had he come along earlier, he may very well have been just another guy writing programming for IBM or the defense department; had he come later, he could have been one of millions circulating his resume at the end of the boom.

    That's not to denigrate what he did; had he not pursued his passion as fervently as he did, he would not have been prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that opened up. But he was also quite fortunate that those opportunities presented themselves at the right time.

  2. Definitely true. And I would say that what you say about being in the right place at the right time is actually a nice way of summing up Gladwell's position. I suppose my critique would be that if you only judge "success" by looking at outliers, then sure all outliers are very lucky people people. But I think most people define success more broadly than that. There are lots of successful people that did not found a major software company and become billionaires. To that end, I would be shocked to learn that given Gates passion and determination that even if he came of age in another era he would not have been "successful" (and highly successful). He may not be a billionaire but so what?

    I also think we have a disagreement as to what constitutes hard work. I definitely think that it is possible to work hard at something that you love and enjoy. This is certainly true in football. A lot of the all time greats had lot's of talent and just worked harder than everyone else.