Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” (and GIVEAWAY)

December 10, 2008

The other day I picked up a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. I’m only a third of the way through the book, but here’s my take on what I have read so far.

Gladwell believes that success is more than just “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.” He tells the story of Bill Gates and that the real reason for his success was that his private school (Gates came from a well-off family) purchased a computer before computers were widely-used and that Gates was naturally drawn to it. In other words, had Gates gone to a different school, I might not be typing this blog post because computer software might not exist as it does today. In other words, circumstances matter.

The problem I have with the book is that Gladwell seems to take the approach that success is simply too hard for the poor to achieve. Yes, I’ll admit that it would be harder for a poor person to achieve success in life but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I think half the battle in achieving anything is mindset. If a person or class of people is constantly told they CAN’T do something, they end up believing it.

How would I level the playing field? My solution:

1. Allow parents vouchers so that they can send their kids to any school they desire. Not all parents would take advantage but some would.

2. Reinforce education and the importance of reading. Enlist the help of ‘famous’ athletes and musicians to get the message out to kids and PARENTS that EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT! Promote libraries and reading clubs. Offer reading classes to parents.

3. Don’t pass kids if they don’t make the grade.

4. Stop glorifying trash and stop filling our kids’ heads with hatred. Show kids how to respect themselves and those around them.

5. Require kids to watch The Big Idea.

Like I said, I’m not through reading Gladwell’s book yet. I don’t agree with some of his thoughts but I do like his style. There aren’t a lot of non-fiction books out there that are enjoyable to read.

GIVEAWAY

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of the book from me, leave a comment below explaining your thoughts on success. I’m going to make this my FIRST EVER subjective giveaway in that I am going to pick my favorite comment (and the comment doesn’t have to agree with me!) and the winner will receive a copy of the book. The deadline for entry is Friday, December 12, 9am CST. Just remember my rule:

1. you must be a resident of the U.S. or Canada (I won’t mail internationally).

34 responses to Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” (and GIVEAWAY)

  1. I agree with your suggestion #1, but the others are unnecessary/harmful.

  2. Andy,

    How so? I’d like to know your thoughts.

  3. I think that it is important to recognize success as a ‘relative’ term, meaning, success to one person is different than another person. With that in-mind, an individual who never graduated from high school, came from a broken family and is now the manager of a local Subway could be considered VERY successful in some circles but from a social perspective, the guy is still only making $12.00 an hour and can’t support a family of 4. Is he successful?

    Anyone can be ‘successful’ but few people can achieve a level of success that society feels is worthy of praise and admiration.

  4. It looks like an interesting book. Just be careful not to confuse “wealth” or “social status” with success. They are very different animals.

  5. I was born at the right time, in the right place to win this book.

  6. By circumstance, I’m the first commenter, and hence have a better shot at winning the book than some others by appearing at the top of the list. Had I not been subscribed to your blog by RSS, this would not have happened.

    Clearly, Gladwell is right. 😉

  7. @ MoneyGrubbingLawyer
    How would you measure success? What ‘ruler’ would you use to stack the masses up against each other?

  8. It is personal. To me success is happiness. Your “needs” are met and you have time and energy to dedicate to achieving your “wants” in life.

  9. I agree with #4. Kids needs need to believe in themselves and respect one another. They also should not go on to the next level if they have not passed the criteria. This is also respecting their intelligence. When I was growing up, one of my basketball coaches had our team repeat this mantra before every game, “I Believe”. I believe in me, I believe in you and I believe in our team. It worked. Our team of scrawny players made it to the playoffs that year much to some of the parents’s surprise.

  10. @ MoneyGrubbingCPA – If I could develop an objective way to measure success, I’d be a very successful person. 🙂

    There is no ruler or easy measurement of success- it depends on what your goals are. I would place things like happiness, fulfillment, purpose, and peace of mind well above things like money or social status.

  11. One of my favorite quotes is by George Watson, who purportedly said, “The best way to ensure success is to double your failure rate.”

    Of the people around me who are successful, most are smart, most are hard workers, some are lucky, its all a mix, and it seems like most people who have a majority of these attribute ‘succeed’ in some sense of the word.

    There is a lot to be said for being in the right place in the right time. That said, it may be entirely possible that Bill Gates would have ended up founding a company like Borland or Symantec.

  12. I’m actually currently reading the book as well, just finished the second chapter “10,000 hours” today. I agree with your statement that he is basically saying that you have to have certain circumstances happen for all this to boil together. And if you are poor you can’t. He tries not to make stereotype comments based off of everyone, although when reading it feels that way. I do agree that there are circumstances that happen in ones life to get them to certain parts. He also is taking the top of the top 1% into consideration, and not looking at the middle class who are extremely successful. He’s always an interesting read, but I don’t think you can take it too literally, they are just certain examples and reasons for things happening. I’m sure there can be arguments against it as well with proper research done.

  13. Success is living free. It is the result of making conscious decisions about what we really want and then acting on those decisions. It is the pursuit which defines the success, not the achievement of some goal or other.

    Part of the transition from childhood to maturity is moving toward a life of freedom. In this sense, freedom isn’t “doing whatever you want.” That’s just acting on a momentary whim or desire and that’s…

    1. fanciful: unrealistic, unconcerned with consequences (therefore ultimately unsustainable and irrational)
    2. anti-social: greedy, self-centered and requiring the indulgence of others (at the extreme, what the A.A. people call co-dependency)
    3. undirected: easily changable, easily manipulated by others (therefore inconsistent and likely unproductive)

    Freedom requires active, self-aware decision making and consistent effort. In this sense, to be free is to be…

    1. a moral agent, responsible for your own actions
    2. mature, functioning in a complex and meaningful world, creating your own options rather than passively accepting the choices given to you
    3. a political citizen, a participant in self and collective governence, as opposed to a subject whose political role is to simply do as told
    4. a financial agent, who can achieve and earn financial success, rather than one who is simply given goods/services
    5. a cultural agent, creating value and being expressive and creative, rather than always being the spectator
    6. empowered, being capable of meaningfully impacting your life situation, rather that being the the tool of others and the plaything of the happenstances of fortune
    7. satisfied, having purposeful fulfillment, rather than having to hope for and accept incidential pleasures and the happenstances of luck

    To be free is to be…

    1. living consciously, to be aware of your own actions, values, thoughts and feelings
    2. self-accepting, to be non-judgemental of yourself even as you seek to change
    3. self-responsible, accepting and seeking responsibility
    4. self-assertive, acting not just being a spectator
    5. living by design, purposeful, goal-directed
    6. devoted to personal integrity, matching your actions with your values

    (Whew! That sounds so pompous and self-important that it makes _me_ uncomfortable and I wrote it.)

  14. I agree that success is not impossible for the poor to achieve, but I also agree that much depends on circumstances. As for not passing kids who do not make the grade – completely agree, but for this to be effective AND to help level the playing field so all socioeconomic classes can succeed, we need to start letting our teachers teach and stop teaching for state and national tests. I have friends and family who are teachers and they say kids miss out on so much because they need to prep for these tests and then when the kids do graduate (if they actually finish) they aren’t prepared for anything at all. Let’s give them the tools to become successful. Also teaching respect for themselves and others would help so much.

  15. Success is definitely a relative term. I don’t believe that circumstances have anything to do with how successful you become…it’s how you handle those circumstances that makes the difference!

  16. EVERYONE has made some great comments.

    I think the definition of success is what matters, and that can only be determined by the individual. Success to me will be totally different than success to someone else.

    I just get nervous when people start talking about socialistic causes in order to level the playing field.

  17. Ok, let’s look at the Bill Gates example from a common sense perspective. Bill did have the advantage of having access to a computer at a much earlier age than the average student. If you read his biography, you will find that his private school was one of the few who had a computer at the time. He also met Paul Allen at the private school and Steve Balmer at Harvard. If Bill were born into an average family, it would have been much more difficult for him to get into these institutions and meet these people. That being said, Bill would have probably been a success either way, but w/ out his priviledged upbringing, I doubt he would be as wealthy as he is today. But that is ok, some people get lucky and are born into the right situations. Larry Elison of Oracle was adopted and raised in a poor family and he did pretty well for himself.

  18. For me, I think it is harder to win if it is related to an action of mine judged by another. This has something to do with my view of success. We are all gifted with certain abilities and talents, and are dealt a hand in life – and that includes genes and environment. Our parents can enable us in a positive way or cripple us. I think to achieve success is to make the most of the hand you are dealt. This is done by using one’s talents and minimizing one’s deficiencies. This reminds me of what a successful marriage can be made from, and that is two people whose talents and deficiencies are complementary. One excels where the other lacks.

    Many people who succeed by society’s standards are gifted with charisma and manipulative abilities, as well. That is worth noting because others may lack those things, even though they have better talents and abilities fitting to the job/position.

  19. I think we are talking about two different definitions of success.

    The first one is easy to recognize when you see as it’s directly related to dollars; owner of a lamborghini, 5000 sq ft house, expensive jewelery, etc.

    The most important success is personal and is related to satisfaction and happiness.

  20. Think about why you read this blog. Ask yourself why you would want to read this book. For us, personal satisfaction and happiness are closely linked to money. I never post comments but I want to be in the running to get something for free. People want to win. I’m no exception and neither are you.

  21. I really like The Big Idea but I’m not sure I’d make it a requirement. Watching it can even be frustrating, as a good idea isn’t worth much if you have no money to back it up.

  22. Adam in San Antonio December 11, 2008 at 8:59 am

    I agree in principle with your suggestions. I would add one more . . . adding a vocabulary section for learning the entymology of our language (the English language). I have no issues with learning other languages, but we must preserve the English language and vocabulary.

  23. I am a firm believer and making education a central thread to our society. Why has passing kids along in school and accepting dropouts as though its the norm become so prevalent in our society? If you look at the Asian “Tiger” countries, education demands respect for the teachers, is tough on the students, and dropouts are simply not accepted. Where have these countries gone over the past several decades? No where but up! If we are not careful, our grandkids become the industrial countrie because labor will be so cheap and the “service” countries will be focused in Asia.

    The other thing aspect that is critical to education – both book and street – is a real bootstrap mentality. I can’t stand listening to people who complain that things aren’t there fault and a “poor me” mentality. Things happen in everyone’s life but it is up to the individual to make the best of things and increase their quality of life (not their neighbors or the governments responsibility).

  24. What’s with all the education hype? I have an awful lot of education and a minimum wage income – so what’s so great about education?

  25. poor boomer,

    Education does not equal a great income.

    Have you ever asked yourself why you only make minimum wage?

  26. It’s obvious why I make only minimum wage – I have no marketable skills and no career-related experience. (I got a liberal arts degree with law school in mind, but couldn’t afford law school, so my degree is now worthless.)

  27. Success is individual: Bill Gates, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Shania Twain, Mark Rwain, Harvey Milk, Emily Dickenson – each may think of him/herself as successful, or not, and we look from the outside and make judgments (ill-informed, biased and value-ridden) about whether they are successful.
    So here are my 3 criteria: Are you happy in your own skin? Love and are loved? Can laugh at yourself?
    It’s well to have “shelter, enough to eat & a bit more than enough to drink,” as the wise man said, but to me, even those are less important than my three.

  28. Well, if it’s ok with everyone (and JLP in particular!) I would like to take a different perspective on success. Most of the comments are discussing success in the context of looking at the past (Bill Gates had this and that at the beginning, moved on to this, etc.) or looking at the present (Bill is a ridiculously wealthy individual).

    I view success as a process. Success is not about the past or the present. It’s about the future. Earl Nightingale said that success is the progressive realization of a goal (paraphrased). I have adopted this as my personal definition of success because I am so far from achieving most of my long-term goals.

    I do not come from a background like Bill Gates did. My dad was a fireman for the first half of my life and then a farmer. My mom was either at home or worked part-time. I was the first person in my immediate family to get a four-year college degree. We were financially OK, but far from anyone’s definition of “privileged”.

    My goals stand in stark contrast to this upbringing. I have multiple lifetime goals, but I’ll just discuss my professional one: I want to be a CIO of a major company.

    The problem is that I am not even close to achieving this goal. I am currently 23 years old and don’t work for a major company. If you look at my life, and compare it to my goal, it is safe to say that I am a failure. I have not achieved my goal. But I do not feel that I am a failure because I feel that I am on my way.

    I work at the college that I got my B.S. degree from. It’s not a major corporation, but this job is positioning me well to achieve my goal. Even though I am only 23, I am working in IT, I have had 3 promotions in four years, I am in my second supervisory job and I have a chance to attain a managerial job next year. I am gaining experience that I must have before I can achieve my professional goal of being a CIO. I’m not there yet, and I have many, many years ahead of me before I can get there, but I am hanging in with this job because it is getting me one step closer to my goal.

    So to me, success is still years away, but that doesn’t make me feel unsuccessful now. Because I am progressively realizing my goals, I feel like a success today even though I still have years to go before I achieve them.

    That’s why I believe that success is more about the progressive realization of a goal than the actual achievement at the end (sorry that it took so long to explain!).

  29. I actually heard about this book on NPR. They interviewed the author for almost an hour and he had to the chance to talk about the book and all sorts of interesting stuff. I was really interested in reading it. I admit, I was a bit surprised at your review because it wasn’t the same spin as I got from NPR. Still, I am interested to learn more. I would agree partially that circumstance does make it easier – but look on the flip side. How many of Bill Gates’ classmates are software moguls today? I believe success comes from taking advantage of the opportunities that life presents you.

  30. I am very interested in this book because my children are young and still have 10,000 hours to work with! I am currently deciding between public and private school. With the current uncertainty in the economy, this decision is even more difficult. I am interested to know how peer relationships and school opportunities affect later success.

    As for the definition of success, for me it is about what choices you have. If you have the choice to start a large, profitable company and that appeals to you – that is success. If you choose to have a very simple life without much money – that is success, too, as long as it was a choice. If you have a simple life without much money, but you dream of having more wealth/power, you aren’t going to feel successful.

    I think part of the problem in the U.S. is that children are taught that they shouldn’t want money. That money isn’t important. That people who have money or own corporations are greedy and evil (like Scrooge). I hope to find a way to teach my children that money is important – not as important and family, friends and happiness – but important none-the-less.

    About leveling the playing field – this really starts before school age. The best investment would be in parent training/education. When I was studying for my teaching credential, we learned that one of the biggest differences between the affluent kids who do well in school and the less affluent who don’t do well is the amount of time their parents talk to them. Just talk! It doesn’t cost anything! But that interaction and exposure to language has a big effect on later success in school.

  31. I agree with patrick in that success is what you make of the opportunities that are provided. I am a firm believer in surrounding myself with individuals that I believe have certain qualities that are better than mine. Some are smarter, some are wealthier, some have better family values, but all have certain characteristics that I strive to become in my own life. I feel that I will be successful not when I reach my first million dollars, but when I am on par with many of my friends and colleagues on the levels that I respect in them. If I have never had to opportunity to interact with such individuals, I would not be the person that I am today. I may be better or worse, but not the same. I think that success is making the most of those opportunities and those interactions. I think unsuccessful people are those that wish that their lives could be different but they do not realize that they have the opportunities for change.

  32. I thought the book was excellent. I wrote my review of Outliers on my blog.

    I am currently working on my 10k hours as a writer hopefully I’ll get good at it someday.

  33. so… who gets the book?

  34. Stunning you would make such statements without having read the book entirely. Way to boast your ignorance.