As you know, today we’re having our first book club discussion on Outliers. I wanted to write down some initial thoughts on the book before our discussion to see if the debate changes any of my original thoughts and impressions.
First I’d like to say I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Gladwell is entertaining to read, each chapter filled with a new aspect that is either entertaining, thought provoking, sparks debate, or all of the above. Never boring.
In his book Gladwell makes the case that Outliers are not who they are simply because of their hard work, genius, and dedication. Of course outliers all have that. But so do a lot of other people. He makes the case that Outliers are created based on those factors, as well as luck, environmental circumstances, family culture, the family tree, when you were born etc. And he goes on to prove his theory by showcasing various sociology studies and case studies based on hockey players, silicon valley experts, Jewish lawyers, the Beatles, etc. etc.
I got to say, for the most part, it makes sense to me. Even for non-outliers, just general people, I believe that a lot of who you become or choices you make in life come from your external environment. It’s logical. There is who you are, what you work for, and opportunity that comes your way. The difference is what people do with the same opportunity.
Of course the book only begins the debate, it doesn’t answer all the questions. For example I can sort of follow his theory on Jewish immigrants to the US and what lead to following generations of great Jewish mitigation lawyers. What isn’t explained is why there was no flux of great lawyers from other immigrant cultures that were in the US at the same time?
The book also sparked off debate within our group: If becoming an outlier depends on so many external factors, should one just give up? Is Gladwell’s theory in danger of spreading a sense of apathy? For example if you’re a hockey player born in August, should you just give up, because the odds seem to be stacked against you of becoming pro?
I don’t believe so. I don’t think that’s what Gladwell intended to say from his book, nor is that what I took from it. In a nutshell here is what I understood. To be successful (in whatever terms that means to you or your field) you need to:
a) be smart enough in your field or
b) work hard or
c) be lucky
And there are large numbers of successful people out there. But to become an OUTLIER, a rare show stopping example in your field, all three must be in your favour. And luck depends on a lot of things, a lot of external circumstances, including ones that predate you by generations. You could even say you that you must be destined to become an outlier, since many of the factors are out of your control. But you won’t know if you are if you don’t try. I don’t think Bill Gates are the Beatles were born saying “you know what, i think I’m an outlier… I’ll take it easy and let things fall into place”. They worked hard, did what they did, and throughout their life many things fell into place that lead them to who they are today. But if all the stars didn’t align, and they didn’t become outliers, well I believe that they’re genius and dedication would have at the very least made them successful. That’s not an argument for apathy now is it?
Read the book and join the debate. Stay posted for our thoughts after our book club meeting!