Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

ImageI’ve always thought of myself as having the potential to be successful. Not in an arrogant way, but in the same way that I think of everyone as having the potential to be successful.  Work hard, pass those exams, get that internship, land the job. Badabing, badaboom. Sometimes I want to shake other people – I see so much spark inside of them, but not enough self-belief, or too much laziness, or both. More often, I want to shake myself: why am I laying in bed all of Sunday watching movies, when I should be preparing myself for entry into a world of unstable job markets? I should be educating myself. Working hard, 24/7. No time for sleep, there is a successful life out there, waiting to be built.

Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ examines exactly how people go out and build those successful lives, and in doing so, destroys the mythical belief that I, along with so many others, share: that the secret to success it to work super hard. Destroys is perhaps too much. I should have said ‘expands upon’, but you catch my drift.  The point that Gladwell makes is that, yes, hard work is a key ingredient to success, but so is your education. And the time of year that you are born in. And your social class. And your nationality. And your generation… et cetera et cetera. The core idea being that the success of an individual is not solely defined by the individual themself, but by a whole host of extraneous factors that lay outside of their control.

Gladwell makes his point simply and easily. The words flew right through my eyes and into my mind and before long, I was happily jabbering away to anyone who would listen to me about Canadian Ice Hockey players born in January, and unsuccessful, working-class men with IQs of 180. It’s one of those books that makes you feel clever without ever having to try too hard to get it.  Gladwell drives the book through a series of eclectic case studies. Perhaps most interestingly, in deconstructing the black-box recordings recovered from fatal plane-crashes, he is able to draw important sociological and psychological conclusions about the effect of nationality on the success of a pilot. It really is quite fascinating.

In some ways, this book is heartening. I may not be set to become an Olympic athlete, nor have I built an international law firm, but I wasn’t raised by a family of sportsmen, nor born to Jewish immigrants in 1930s America (read the book, all shall become clear). In other words, it comforts you that the extreme success of an individual is never simply down to that individual alone, thus freeing you from the belief that the pressure to succeed lies wholly on your shoulders. However, it’s also a bit sad, or scary, or something unpleasant at least. It makes me feel restricted by my social standing, by my generation, by my education. It gives me an excuse to fail.  And I don’t know if I want that. I want to resent myself for not being the best that I can be, because that in turn drives me to stop bloody procrastinating and get the hell on with it. Gladwell’s book is an interesting, sociological study and definitely worth a read. But it’s not going to stop me trying.


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