11 January 2011

Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I first heard about Outliers from my sister-in-law, Shalissa. Then Heidikins gave it five-stars, and a couple of other people I know read and blogged about some other Malcolm Gladwell books that they read in 2010 (Trish read Tipping Point and Janssen read Blink). During a middle of the night feeding, in which I had one hand available, I put Outliers on hold at the library, along with a couple of others I'd been meaning to read. It became available very quickly, and I devoured it right after I devoured The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (You know, this book review is becoming a memoir about my experience in obtaining the book rather than an actual review of it, so let's get down to business.)

The book sets out to explain why some people are successful. Mind you the book does not set out to explain how to be successful. Rather, it focuses on the happy accidents and cultural legacies that lead people to be successful.

Gladwell argues that though we tend to think that the only two ingredients to success are hard work and dedication, there are a lot of other factors that can really contribute to how successful we become, like birth date, birth location, and our parents' economic status.

A number of reviews that I read mentioned that Gladwell throws away the belief that success is all about hard work and dedication. In a way, that is true. I think it's important to note, though, that even when he discusses the backstories behind some of the successes, he never fails to mention that these people, in addition to having a great stroke of luck, also worked incredibly hard to become successful.

The book is full of interesting case studies and analysis. For instance, early in the book he discusses how the month in which you are born can determine how successful you are in school. For example, in the United States kids usually start school (in what we call Kindergarten) at age 5. Generally the cut-off date for starting school is about September 1, give or take a few weeks depending on the state, school district, etc. Now, when you are talking about five-year-olds, a few months can mean a world of difference in developmental abilities. When you are looking at a kid who barely missed the cut-off date the previous year and who turns 6 just a few days into the school year and comparing him with a kid who turned 5 just in time for the cut-off date of this school year, there can be a vast difference. Now, let's say those kids are weeded out early for advanced programs. Who is most likely to be advanced? Generally, the kids who are older will have a head-start. Then, once they are in the advanced programs, they have that much more of an advantage - smaller class sizes, more challenging course material that stretches the gap even further, and more attention from teachers. Now, obviously, this doesn't mean that if your kid is born in the wrong month he'll never get into the advanced classes. There are plenty of kids born later in the school year who have great academic success. But let's just say that a kid is above average, but not necessarily so high above average that it's obvious he's bright. When he is so much younger than his peers, his above average aptitude may go unnoticed.

With all that said, Gladwell does propose a solution - in the early elementary years, sort the children into classes based on the time of year they were born. With time the kids can start being integrated together more normally, but this setup would be helpful initially.

I would have liked to have seen more of these proposed solutions in Gladwell's book. He does an astoundingly good job of breaking down the reasons behind success, but I felt like he was inconsistent in providing solutions to some of the problems he points out. Granted, some of the problems probably can't be solved, but many of them could be, and I think Gladwell's got the smarts to address those problems.


Janssen said...

I LOVED this book. If you like Malcolm Gladwell, you'd probably enjoy Bill Bryson too. I'm reading At Home right now and completely enthralled.

heidikins said...

I'm with Janssen on both counts, although you should definitely skip Bryson's book on Shakespeare, it was a snoozefest.

Did you like Outliers? Or was it just so-so?


P1 Steven said...

The sports station I listen to locally applied the birth month theory to sports. More Hall of Famers are born in Sept/Oct/Nov combined then any other three months combined.

Packrat said...

Really, this seems to be so true. Why ARE children aged 4, 5, 6 and occasionally almost 7 in the same kindergarten class? The four year old may be just as smart (or may have learned more) than the 6 year old, but size, coordination, and maturity play a huge role, too.

trishtator said...

I consider myself a successful human being. I was also born in July and started school a month after turning five.

Put that in your cookies and milk and smoke it!

Science Teacher Mommy said...

I love the reading with one arm in the middle of the night thing. I read dozens of books while I was nursing.

I read him all the time in the New Yorker; he wrote a piece on this book specifically a few years ago about a girl's champion basketball team. He's just such a great writer. This one has been on my to-read list for probably too years.

And I'm with Janssen and Heidikins--Bryson is wonderful.