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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Book Review

I’m not a big Malcolm Gladwell fan but after I saw everybody and their Mom reading Outliers, I picked it up at the Borders on 4th and King in San Francisco. Here’s the two word review: Read It. 

But in more detail:

Outliers describes, not with a lot of hard data and scientific rigor but instead with several anecdotes, analogies and light discussion of existing research why some people are outrageously successful (the so-called outliers) while most of humanity is not. I figured that the book would be a detailed discussion surrounding the circumstances behind the rise of Gates, Joy, the Google guys (who aren’t mentioned at all) and other people *I* consider to be outliers. However, the book describes things as myriad as the Asian excellence in Math versus American children of similar status, why Korean Air crashed more planes until 1999, why the culture of honor makes Southerners more angry than people from the American NorthEast, etc. 

The higher-level thesis – that success isn’t a deterministic event but a combination of hard work, pluck, lucky breaks, cultural legacies and random circumstances – is argued mostly convincingly in a breezy fun-to-read fashion. Now, a lot of this is OBVIOUS. No one gets there alone and my Mom taught me that when I was six years old. Most Indian people inherently recognize the value of familial bonds and the role of the community in the success of individuals. When I reflect upon my meager successes, I can easily trace back all the folks that helped me along the way as I journeyed from a small sleepy town in India to dazzling San Francisco over a decade’s worth of breathing time. The pivotal moment in my life occurred when my Dad – a parent as loving as any other but not necessarily the most hands-on guy in the world – decided that I’d pursue my undergraduate studies in the United States, financial burden to our family be damned. 

It was a sore topic for my mother, who acquiesced grudgingly and just let me take my SATs. My father gave me the gift of opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history. 

So the book, if nothing else, will serve as a nice reminder of where you’ve come from and how the rugged individualism we so cherish in the US is so much bullshit, at least when viewed in black and white terms. Some of the parts of the book – for example, the fact that the Chinese farming culture of rice paddies is inextricably tied to their excellence in math – sound and probably are hooey. Gladwell blames the American summer vacation and the lack thereof in China for superior Math skills. Well, guess what, fella? Us Indos are probably right up there in terms of math skill and I remember my lazy ass sitting around for 3 months every year. And I was doing advanced trig well before tenth grade came around. Gladwell, of course, presents no counterpoints, which is why I have to ignore the whole math chapter. 

Even if you doubt the analysis, there’s a lot of fun trivia and historical context which you’ll enjoy. So once again: read it.

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Categories: life
  1. January 26, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Yea, I’ve started it myself. I like getting the idea out that welp, it’s *not* just Dumb Luck (so you might as well not bother trying) – but it’s not “just try harder! Determination will get you everywhere!” either. I have too many folks reading at a third grade level who want to be lawyers and simply have no idea what it entails.

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