Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
(Little, Brown, 309 pages, $27.99)
It isn’t sheer talent that distinguishes most superachievers, says New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. Bill Gates is smart, but he never would have created Microsoft if he hadn’t enjoyed a unique chance to spend thousands of hours writing computer code before he finished high school. The Beatles rocked, but they might never have achieved stardom if they hadn’t lucked into a Hamburg gig that forced them to perform together for hundreds of hours a month. Unexpected opportunities can arise in many ways. Some 70 percent of Canadian professional hockey players, for instance, have birthdays in the first half of the year. Their birth months created a meaningful edge when the players were in youth leagues, says Gladwell, when a little extra size and maturity could get them more time to hone their skills on the ice.
The author of The Tipping Point and Blink has done it again, said Gregory Kirschling in Entertainment Weekly. His third book combines anecdotes as tasty as “salty peanuts” with counterintuitive academic theories so clearly explained that they can “blow open the heads of even the dimmest reader.” Some of Gladwell’s conclusions are far from new, said Jason Zengerle in New York. He definitely believes in hard work—specifically, in the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of work to achieve mastery in almost any endeavor. Gates, the Beatles, and most youth-league hockey standouts put in that kind of time once given the chance. Outliers’ larger point, though, is that society needs to be more alert to such differences in opportunity, and more diligent about leveling the playing field.
But a “flimsy selection of colorful anecdotes” doesn’t prove an argument, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. In the final section of Outliers, Gladwell explains the high crash rate at a foreign airline and the high math scores of Asian-American students with theories that reduce individuals to mere “pawns of their cultural heritage.” Fortunately, Gladwell is confident enough to say things that some people won’t want to hear, said Stephen Lynch in The New York Post. After all, a study about success that stresses the importance of dedicated effort is the equivalent of “a diet book that says you should eat less and exercise more.” If the words “Malcolm Gladwell” didn’t appear on the spine, “what American would buy it?”