BOOKCASE: Outliers: The story of success

• Malcolm Gladwell
• Penguin Group
• $37.00

The man who introduced populist phrases like “tipping point” and “blink” into the corporate lexicon is at it again, this time with the concept of “outliers”.
These are people who lie outside the performance norm, men and women who do things out of the ordinary and succeed at levels beyond the usual bounds or expectations. But although Malcolm Gladwell’s stories chronicle some of the usual culprits – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs et al, this is less about individual achievement as the context in which it takes place.
Success, according to the Outlier thesis, does not happen in vacuum. People don’t just rise from nothing – they’re invariably the beneficiaries of “hidden advantages, extraordinary opportunities or cultural legacies that allow them to learn, work hard, and make sense of the world in ways others cannot”.
Pick the wrong culture, historical period, parents or even birth date and you could end up being just another wannabe genius.
Take the immigrant families who came to the US from small Italian village called Rosetta and startled demographic researchers with their propensity to live lives much healthier and longer than the norm for the sole reason they were … Rosettans. There was no other common denominator to explain the phenomenon apart from the strong, supportive community in which they all lived.
Context is all, reiterates Gladwell through his tales of sporting heros who do better than peers mainly because their birth dates give them head start, his detailed explorations of why some airlines suffer more crashes than others, why it’s bad idea to get offside with your Kentucky neighbours and how genius-level IQ turns out to be lousy predictor of career success.
It’s all very interesting and makes excellent fodder for dinner party chatter. It’s also very well written with narrative immediacy that hooks you in. “On the morning of August 5 1997 the captain of Korean Air flight 801 woke at six…”
But somewhere amongst the absorbing stories and fascinating facts, I started to wonder, really, whether the whole book amounted to much more than that.
I’ve enjoyed both of Gladwell’s previous books and he has certainly developed good format – find really interesting example of particular phenomenon, dress it in good storyteller’s mantle, then shoehorn it into the prevailing theme. It’s an easy read – it’s even almost convincing. But it feels bit like cyberchondriac searching the internet for symptoms that prove they are indeed suffering from some specific syndrome. O my god… it all stacks up – I really do have outliermylitis.
I do get the notion that context is fairly vital – that, as Gladwell says, “we do owe something to parentage and patronage”. In fact, I think it’s fairly self evident that is the case. There has to be some reason why so many people dive into debt in order to get their kids into the best private schools. Equally I suspect that if you trolled further through the annals of achievement, you might find the odd person who made it despite unrelentingly desperate circumstances.
I’m just not sure the Outlier neologism deserved whole book – though it proved darn good excuse for an intensive exploration of air accidents. And that certainly kept me reading.

Visited 16 times, 1 visit(s) today

A focus on culture

Rabobank’s 520-plus New Zealand employees work from 27 locations – places like Ashburton, Pukekohe and Feilding and from a purpose-built head office in Hamilton. Its employees are proud of the

Read More »
Close Search Window