Outliers, Thought-Provoking Storytelling.

Outliers Book Cover

Read: September 20 – 25th, 2013

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Malcolm Gladwell is a fantastic writer and story teller. I imagine this is why his books sell so well and he has so many fans. I read Outliers in just a few days, granted it is a short book but I was also on a beach in the Philippines and I frequently had to remind myself of this fact so I didn’t spend too much time in the room reading.

I was going to give the book a 5 star rating. I bought into Outliers hook line and sinker. The book basically argues that the general consensus the public and the media has of highly successful people (especially those that came form a less than favorable background) clawing and fighting themselves to the top through sheer determination and genius alone is a fallacy. Gladwell sets out to ‘prove’ that it is in fact determination and hard work coupled with very fortunate circumstances and a lot of help from other people. The premise is very thought provoking and presents many case studies (read: South Korean Airlines) that are fascinating.

As a quick example Gladwell points out that in the world of Canadian Hockey, a large percentage of the elite players were born in the same few months. As children this meant they were older than their peers in the same leagues and thus more developed and larger. This small advantage when younger is quickly magnified as the better players receive more training and attention. This ties into Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory then; since the players receive more training and attention, they reach the 10,000 hour mark much quicker and thus become the ‘elite’ players. The elite players are the elite because of one small advantage as a child that creates a snowball effect throughout their life.

I was a little behind with this book summary, I’m writing it a few weeks after finishing the book. The other day I completely by chance stumbled upon an article by Paul Raeburn on MIT’s Science Journal: Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell and this follow-up: Malcolm Gladwell speaks: Can narrative be misused in journalism?

“I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research … for ways of augmenting story-telling. …we’re obsessed with things like coherence, consistency, neatness of argument. Readers are indifferent to those things.” -Malcolm Gladwell “All writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness.” -Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell absolutely presents his work in Outliers as fact, as well-researched and verified fact (which I assume he does in his other books as well). These comments from Gladwell himself seem to directly contradict this. They leave me feeling slightly betrayed. Gladwell’s response to these criticisms does absolutely nothing to disprove his critics and simply tells them to “calm down”.

Outliers must be taken as a story, a very good story. Do not take it as well researched journalism or fact even if it is presented that way and you will be much better for it.

Note: This post is part of my 26 Books in 26 Weeks Goal.