Malcolm Gladwell wants to change how people think about success with his 2008 book, Outliers.
Successful individuals do not get to where they are solely through extraordinary talent and drive, he says. They also benefit from specific situations of culture, community and circumstances that can and should be extended to others.
In the introduction, Gladwell compares how he thinks about success to the way two key medical doctors think about health. To make his point evident, he describes lessons the doctors learned by studying people living in the community of Roseto, Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Roseto was then known for its lack of heart disease. Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn discovered that many people in Roseto had eating, sleeping, smoking and other bad habits in similar rates to people living in other communities in the United States at that time. Despite that, people in Roseto enjoyed better health. The doctors attributed their well-being to a culture in which multi-generational families lived together in cohesive friendly neighbourhoods.
Wolf and Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn’t be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual’s personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are. In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.”
Structure: success via steps
“The Roseto Mystery” is the first of eleven specific stories Gladwell tells in Outliers. Each story has a specific lesson for readers presented in easy-to-read anecdotes, so that the book can be read in short chunks of time.
Headings like “The 10,000 hour rule,” “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” and “The Trouble with Geniuses” tell readers the point Gladwell wants to make.
Story: multiple examples of success and failure
The ideas Gladwell presents are so wide-ranging and controversial, they could set up multiple experiments in aviation, business, education, and parenting. Among the many presented in this book are:
- Junior sports teams that want to enable more children to succeed would try to ensure that players compete against those born in the same three-month period.
- Elite schools could abandon exams and use a lottery system to select students from anyone who exceeds a basic minimum IQ.
- Schools with low-income students could extend school hours and limit the length of summer vacations.
- Businesses could establish routines that help alleviate stress for people with a cultural heritage of losing their temper.
- Parents could learn to encourage their children to stand up to authority.
- Airline companies could treat employees to communicate assertively.
- Communities could set up computer terminals and lessons for citizens.
Style: Gladwell varies anecdotes, description and lists about success
Gladwell fits controversial notions within long descriptions so that they don’t seem as jarring as they might be otherwise. He’s also great at making readers feel part of a two-way conversation, such as in the paragraph heading a list on page 81:
But take a look at the following list of where the last twenty-five Americans to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine got their undergraduate degrees, starting in 2007.”
Lists and data alternate with heart-rending stories about specific individuals, companies and schools to highlight how suffering can be alleviated by creating a healing or challenging environment, depending on the desired goal of success. He makes it clear that individual drive still counts, but that equal opportunity is not as wide-spread as we imagine. Behind every successful person is a community and heritage of privilege, luck or generosity.
Sound: alternating short statements with detailed descriptions and telling quotes
Gladwell uses short pithy sentences expertly to keep things moving fast. Then he slows the reader down with long descriptive paragraphs full of emotion.
Quotes make crucial points, such as one that occurs on page 45.
“Do you know what the difference is between the computing cards and time-sharing?” Joy says. “It’s the difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess.”
The author’s expertise at using story, style and sound makes Outliers a good book, but the sincere way Gladwell makes his points make the book extraordinary. Reading Outliers inspired gratitude, empathy and motivation.
For more information about Outliers, refer to the question and answer discussion on Gladwell’s website.
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Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, New York: Hachette, 2008, ISBN 978-0-316-01792-3