The first chapter of Outliers sets a most unusual tone. The idea it presents is fairly atypical: People trying out for youth league Hockey in Vancouver, Canada are more likely to become professional Hockey players if they’re born near the start of the year instead of at the end. Analyses like this fill the spine of Malcolm Gladwell’s close inspection of success, researched through far strung histories or large swaths of data, and despite how odd most of his ideas are--and in some cases, really inconvenient--they all resonate with a supple serving of truth.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Outliers is a collection of offbeat anecdotes that try to extract the source of “success”. Each chapter makes a unique observation about completely unrelated circumstances, which is how we arrive at a book about Hockey in Vancouver, but also about the restructuring of Korean Air, “The Beatles” before their career took off, family feuds across the Appalachian, and the relation between rice paddies and proficiency in math. It’s like Freakonomics for success, and notably more focused. Freakonomics reveals that economic relations and success can come from unexpected angles. Outliers offers a sharper observation: success is attributed to more cultural factors, often outside your control, than you probably realize.
For example, I mentioned the first chapter: Hockey players in Vancouver generally perform better when born earlier in the year. Why does your birthday matter so much? If you absolutely want no spoilers, skip this paragraph, otherwise: The birth cutoff date for Youth Hockey Leagues is at the end of the year, which means the difference in size and maturity can differ tremendously between two 6-year-olds if one is nine months older than the other. Gladwell notices that because these kids perform better on average, they are also more likely to receive additional support from their coaches and family. The surrounding figures mistake size and maturity for “potential”, so they’re more likely to nurture and improve that kid. What this leads to is a snowball effect: the kid that does better early gets more support, excels thanks to that support and in turn continues to be padded and refined more and more down the line, so long as they remain committed. The other kid, born late in the year, might not do quite as well at the beginning, and because they aren’t receiving the same attention or support, will never get quite as good unless they put in tons of extra work and make a serious effort to improve. Major disadvantage is created solely because of a factor neither child can control.
Every chapter of Outliers executes with a similar modus operandi, the intention mostly about exploiting the status quo. And it’s all deftly curious, but poignant; the events and facts that Gladwell chooses to reveal are undeniably interesting, which makes for one of the best kind of reads. This book carries the advantage of having solid subject matter, impressive intrigue, and some revelatory perspective. On top of that, the organization and delivery is structured with a tight lattice of detail and tonal variance. As a work of research, Outliers achieves its goals with aplomb.
My only issue: despite how well a case Gladwell lays out, he neglects to offer a hard outline in the way of solution. I mentioned that most chapters focus on exploiting the status quo for all the missed opportunities it creates, but then he fails to offer much of a solution. It’s not a terrible misplay, but it’s still a foul. The only segment that seems to go beyond observation and enter the realm of solution is Chapter 2, “It takes 10,000 hours”, which first observes how people like Bill Gates and The Beatles managed to craft such a legacy out of seemingly nowhere, then talks about the idea of skill mastery and what it takes to get there. Still, the revelation of Outliers carries resplendent value, and is definitely worth a read.