Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

February 4th, 2013 by Brian Leave a reply »

What do Bill Gates, The Beatles, and Andrew Carnegie have in common? They’re outliers, statistical anomalies that stray from average society into the land of superstar success.

But is that all that they share? What led to their success?

That’s what Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is about. Gladwell looks at factors that successful people have no control over, things like access to resources and the year/location of their birth. Sure, we know that The Beatles had their big debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and started Beatlemania, but did you know that they were playing for eight hours a day in Hamburg, Germany (after starting out in Liverpool, England) years before Ed Sullivan? They had enough time to weed out the average (and, by some accounts, downright bad) songs and instead lock into the sound that made them famous.

Another case in point: Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. If we only looked at the surface, then the secret to success in the computer industry is to go to an Ivy League school and then drop out, right? What doesn’t get mentioned much is that when he was 13, the parents organization at his elite prep school bought a terminal to access a computer owned by General Electric. This was at a time when you got charged to log into a computer because they were so rare and could only handle one process – let alone one user – at a time. (Think about how many processes are running just on your cell phone as it’s checking for signal strength, synching the time, managing the battery, checking for messages and/or email, and running any additional apps.)

On top of that, even before setting foot on Harvard’s campus, Gates had exploited a bug (keep in mind that he was still a teenager) to get additional time on Computer Center Corporation’s system after the donation from the Lakeside parents organization ran out with General Electric. When he got caught, instead of getting severely punished, he was hired to check for bugs in their system. Just like the Beatles, he put in a ton of time before trying to launch Microsoft. Those hours and hours of work cannot be ignored.

At first these look like rare stories of success, but Gladwell takes it one step further and suggests that we can create these opportunities as a society – opportunities that give people a chance to show off their talent – if we really want to. His thoughts on education are intriguing and the whole point of why he wrote the book. It’s one giant case zeroing in on the last five pages where he makes suggestions on how to improve schooling to capitalize on the talent of our students.

It’s definitely an entertaining read, which is funny given how much data is presented. Instead of coming off as a textbook lecture, Gladwell presents the information in a clear, concise, and witty manner.


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