Before I read this book, I had preconceived notions about “genius” and “smart, successful” people. I remember having a heated discussion with my brother-in-law, a Harvard P.H.D, about why some people are successful and some aren’t. I was opining that outliers (super, smart people) become successful no matter what their circumstances just because not only are they cognitively bright, but they have the smarts to beat all the odds and reach the top. My brother-in-law didn’t seem to see me eye-to-eye on this and rebutted with the opinion that it is sheer luck that plays a part in how successful one is. He gave examples of numerous co-workers of his at Google who tried their hand in startups and were unsuccessful, not because they weren’t smart, but because lady luck was not on their side. I presented him with examples of my friends who had the smarts, worked hard and have overcome difficulties to become doctors, engineers, and such. Needless to say, the argument went nowhere and each of us decided to agree to disagree.
Enter “Outliers-The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell a few weeks later. In his book, Gladwell took me on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers”–the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful and posed the questions, how are they different that the average man?
His in-depth analysis concludes that we pay too much attention on what successful people are like now, and too little attention on where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. According to him, all these factors play a role in what becomes of those young, bright, and promising students in schools.
His argument and the evidence supporting it illuminates why some people succeed, living productive and impactful lives, while so many others never reach their potential?
While reading this book, he had me challenge the whole “self-made man” belief. A lovely and somewhat misguided theory that with true grit, passion, and smarts to match, one can accomplish anything and be spectacularly successful. He argues that we “pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit”, when in reality there are “stories, instead about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it”. Examining the lives of outliers such as Bill Gates and Mozart, he builds a convincing case that successful people rise on a tide of advantages and sadly, because of plain ol’ dumb luck of being born in a certain family at a certain time in a certain place. I swallowed a lot of pride as I learned through his research that outliers are “invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Being born in a middle-class family of a certain race, who can afford to send you to college to growing up and finding your niche in an industry where the rest of the society rewards your effort and expertise impacts whether one can be called an outlier or not.
He does point out that “virtually every success story we’ve seen in this book so far involves someone or some group working harder than their peers”. Yet, he still concludes that “when we understand how much culture and history and the world outside of the individual matter to professional success” we have a way of making successes out of the unsuccessful. So it got me thinking. Gladwell does point that there is a pattern in each outlier’s life when it comes to how they became successful, however, it seems like there is an unintentional or intentional disregard of the inner workings of the human psyche. What did these outliers think of these challenges they met? What were their particular challenges? Do they see themselves as successful? Who do they attribute their successes to? These are the questions I feel Gladwell didn’t address in the book. He just presented “A” point of view not “THE” point of view.
Anyways, in conclusion, Gladwell invites conversations about the complex ways the privilege manifests in our culture through his staunch opinion and I respect him for that. He DID leave me thinking how many bright outliers in schools lose their chance of becoming successful as we define it because of lack of opportunities. I would totally recommend this book. Happy Reading!