Sunday, May 17, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success, is a book that has wide appeal but will be of special interest to lawmakers, politicians, parents and teachers who think about how they might maximize the potential of children and young people to do well in life.

In his Acknowledgements, Malcolm Gladwell, the British-born Canadian journalist (New Yorker), author, blogger and pop sociologist, states: “This is a book about the meaning of work.” (298)

The focus, as the title suggests is on ‘outliers’—people who do things that are out of the ordinary.

The author torpedoes popular notions of ‘success’, as expressed in the celebrity culture and the status attributed to sportspeople.

The first part of the book addresses the age-old debate that crops up in Education 101 about Nature v Nurture. Is success largely attributable to the genes with which we have been given and our innate intelligence or to our parentage and patronage? This discussion addresses the relationship between success and IQ. Are the contestants who perform well in game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire successful people? Gladwell interestingly makes the distinction between analytical intelligence and practical intelligence, the difference between being smart and being savvy.

Gladwell asks about the role of place and environment and how parents and teachers might go about shaping a culture that is conducive to learning and growth.

The subtitle, The Story of Success, suggests that readers can expect a book with lots of stories but what Gladwell uses is not so much stories that can be used by raconteurs but case studies that open windows, earth the discussion and assist in persuasion.

Gladwell draws from the experience of well-known and not so well-known computer programmers, violinists, chess players and entrepreneurs. In the New Yorker Gladwell has displayed great skill in taking ordinary, everyday things like T-shirts, ketchup, office design, French fries, coffee, shopping malls and paper and enabling his readers to see something more.

The second part of Outliers examines the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears and asks about the extent to which people might be assisted to succeed by building and treasuring our cultural legacies.

This section looks at the differences in the cultures in which we have been raised, especially examining the ‘tendencies, assumptions and reflexes’ that shape these communities. It is fascinating to read various studies from which Gladwell draws, that explore the freedom or fear within cultures to disagree with the elderly and those in authority. These also examine different values that cultures espouse and how being nurtured in these communities creates or hinders the formation of successful people.

The author’s motivation is that readers might be attentive to the conditions that promote good living, learning and growth and that we might “build societies that provide opportunities for the growth of all.” (268)

Gladwell, who also wrote the internationally popular books, Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005), has developed a reputation for synthesizing huge wads of dry research into books that are interesting, clear, simple, colorful and related to questions that many ordinary people are asking.

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 72.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: The front cover of Outliers.