Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.
Little, Brown, and Company, New York, 2008.
Adult nonfiction, 309 pages including notes and index.
Lexile: 1080L .
AR Level: 7.8 (worth 13.0 points) .
What do geniuses, rice paddies, hockey players, a Korean airline, a small town in Kentucky, and young Jamaican twins have to do with each other? These topics and more are woven together in Gladwell’s explanation of success.
This book goes beyond the ten thousand hours to achieve mastery theory to examine what else can effect our success or failure in life. Gladwell looks at how community can change health, how Germany jumpstarted the Beatles, what made one Jewish lawyer wildly successful while his father struggled, and what linguistic difference makes Chinese children understand math more easily.
The first half of the book is focused on opportunity. How does one get a chance to put in the 10,000 hours of focused practice? Why does mere genius not predict success? What role does our time and place play in success or failure?
Gladwell delves deeply into what happened during the life of Christopher Langan to cause this man with 195 IQ, born to be a college professor, to instead become a dropout. At one time I was involved with gifted education, so I’m actually quite familiar with how easily a gifted student can be damaged and how much careful nurturing (in many areas of life) it takes for students with such high IQs to have successful outcomes. But I think many readers will devour this example with interest. Particularly in America, we tend to think of gifted students as detached, prideful, or advantaged, even when that is not the case.
The first half of the book is careful not to delve into race. The first few examples use hockey players and software engineers in case studies unlikely to threaten white or privileged people. Later ethnicity plays a role, but is approached as cultural differences.
The second half of the book is a more focused look at how, specifically, various legacies can lead to success or failure. This is the part of the book where culture comes into play. The Appalachian settlers of the American South influenced that region’s strong culture of honor, leading to a place where petty crime is low but murder can be viewed as an appropriate response to an insult.
The ethnic theory of plane crashes was one of the few sections of this book that was entirely new to me. I’d heard something like this from a friend that works in an airport, but this explanation did not apply blame to another culture’s priorities. The influence that Chinese number words have on math ability was familiar, and I’ve read a lot about KIPP and similar charter schools.
It wasn’t until the final chapter that Gladwell got at what I felt was an obvious point of this book: the systematic disadvantage of minority groups creates a disparity that is invisible to most in power, causing disadvantaged groups to be blamed for their own disadvantage. He examines this through a surprising and bold case study, and finally draws the disparate threads of his thinking together.
If I’d read this closer to when it first came out, I probably would have enjoyed it more. The main reason it didn’t make much impression on me is that I’d already read other books that covered most of the topics Gladwell introduces here. However, that said, if you don’t read widely on education, child development, or intercultural relations, this book was a good snippet of introduction to a wide variety of topics. Gladwell provides plenty of references for those who wish to read more, and he is such an entertaining writer that this was a quick read.
There wasn’t anything that stood out to me as triggering, however in general I wouldn’t recommend this book for children below high school. There are portions (such as the purchase of a mistress in the final chapter) that aren’t intended for young readers.