Reading List: Outliers

It took me two attempts to get through Outliers.  The first time I started reading this book, I had trouble getting past the fact that everyone focuses on the “birthday” success factor when talking about the book, and outside of sports I tend to think that other factors are more important to success.  I’m glad that I decided to re-tackle this book on the plane because the latter part of the book covered some of my own preconceived ideas about success, and added several new facets as well.

If you have heard of Outliers have most likely heard the correlation between professional sports “stars” and their birthdays.  Basically Gladwell highlights a correlation between those who are the oldest players  in a year-group, and those who grow up to be successful athletes.  This correlation is provable across many different sports, and Gladwell argues that the attention these players get from being just a bit better due to physical advantages means that they get more playing time, more praise and more practice, and that this cascades and accumulates, ensuring that they have more opportunity to excel and become experts.

The later part of the book brings in many other factors that drive “Outlier” like success.  There are a few other circumstance type drivers, such as the year when someone is born, or the historical experiences that a culture shares.  Gladwell also points out several Outliers that had happenstance advantages, such as being given a unique opportunity at a key point of personal development.

Gladwell revisits the idea of “time spent practicing” later in the book, but in more of a comparative way instead of the “10,000 hours to excellence” that was highlighted earlier in the book.  One such comparison was academic achievement in different countries, compared with the lengths of their school year.  This highlighting of marginal differences was much more compelling to me than the first part of the book.  I also appreciated that the end of the book discussed some ways we can eliminate the biases that our “normal” way of life imparts on us.

The last running theme that struck a chord with me was that success is not a matter of personal will, but rather a mixture of will, chance and opportunity.  I do paradoxically wonder what happens when more people are given the knowledge of what it takes to become an Outlier, and they set their will toward making it happen.