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"Outliers" Book Commentary

Lili's picture
I happened upon Malcolm Gladwell’s third book, Outliers,[1] not only because it was recommended to me, but also because its title was also of interest. It referred to one of the statistical terms I learned in my high school statistics class – which brings me to one of the questions he calls to our attention as readers. I took statistics my senior year of high school because I was not prepared for pre-calculus. I’ve always hated math and have consequently received grades that reflect my distaste for the subject. I used to excuse my shortcomings to myself by declaring, “It’s ok, I’m just not a math person like so-and-so is.”   Was this really the case, though? 
            In the section of the book called “Rice Paddies and Math Tests,” Gladwell explores the idea that genes do not determine mathematical success, but rather environmental and cultural factors do so.[2] I really liked this idea. It made me feel as if my previous difficulties in math classes were not necessarily the fault of my genes. Maybe if I had thought about this at a younger age, it would have helped me gain more confidence in the realm of math. The idea frustrated me as well, however. I felt annoyed that my teachers never understood these ideas. Part of Gladwell’s argument is that speed and early success in math are rewarded, and students that demonstrate neither such thing are placed into math classes that slow the learning process even more for them. The whole notion of the origin of success interested me. On a larger scale, this concept raises the question: is success biologically and genetically based, or is it environmentally and culturally based? 
            I could give a dozen examples that Gladwell narrates regarding this question, but one of my favorite chapters was one that was particularly challenging for me to read. One chapter entitled, “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” divulges into a strange phenomena. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, studies tracked plane crashes and tried to comprehend why they were occurring so frequently – and it wasn’t just that they were taking place often. They were consistently happening on the same airlines. One airline that was exceptionally problematic was Korean Air. Their crash rates were more than seventeen times greater than those of United Airlines. To make a long story short, pilots and researchers have come up with a potential answer. Countries like South Korea and Colombia (another country that is the home to an airline with high crash rates) have higher PDI’s, or Power Distance Indexes. The PDI of a country is a reflection of how its culture responds to authority. Having high PDI’s, the cultures of South Korea and Colombia make it more difficult for people with less authority to be direct with people that have more authority. In this case, this concept translates to the fact that, in the black box recordings of the crashed planes, the first officer was not able to tell the captain that there was a problem with the plane.   According to Gladwell, this perception has been called into question by airline training programs, and is now being accounted for in pilots’ classes.[3] Now, why was this challenging for me to read, as I said before? When I was young, I was terribly afraid of airplanes and flying. When I went on vacations, I would say goodbye to my room and stuffed animals before I left, because I was so scared my plane would crash. It was an irrational fear, since my brother (an airplane aficionado) always explained to me that I would be more likely to get into a car accident than a plane crash. This didn’t matter to me, though.   However morbid it was, the thought of falling from the sky in a burning plane always freaked me out more than anything. Reading Gladwell’s section on plane crashes was tough at first, sure; but I think it helped me fathom just how unlikely crashes are, and how many things have to go wrong for them to occur. 
            That being said, I still had some serious issues with the book. To begin with, I can count on one hand, worse yet, finger, how many successful females Gladwell mentioned. The text was completely centered around male achievements, and the three times females were brought to attention was in the context of their research about males (which happened twice) and in the personal anecdote Gladwell tells at the end of the book. The end. As much as it’s interesting learning about Bill Gates, Bill Joy, (male) Canadian hockey teams, males are not the only people in the world that have been successful! In such a male dominated world, I think that successful females are even more of “outliers” in terms of their success than males are, because it’s a lot harder for them to gain recognition (as Gladwell clearly demonstrates). Not to mention, females do some pretty great things for the world and bring different attitudes and ideas to the table than males do. Additionally, Gladwell never clearly defines “success.” Is it having a high IQ? Is it going to a good school? Is it not crashing a plane, or is it starting a multibillion-dollar company? Without a clear-cut definition, it’s hard to understand exactly what kind of success (or kinds) he’s trying to analyze. I also think that success can be largely subjective. It might mean one thing to one person, and a different thing to the next. Other than those few questions I have, I though that it was an interesting and provocative read. 

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
[2] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, 224-249.

[3] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, 177-223.  


Serendip Visitor's picture

Now I remember....the people

Now I remember....the people who recommended "Outliers" were males. What makes me like it, is the crunching and interpretation of data that can explain why my friend is unable to do well in college, as a result of being put in the disabled learning sections since second grade. She's smart, but hasn't had opportunities to show it. Now she's dropping out. Sadly, people like her don't see the value in a degree but I understand her frustration with being a B student at least. College is much harder than my course in high school.

Gosh, and people who were in the honors program in highschool did applications for college some getting into Yale, and UC Berkeley. Whilst on the other hand, I was in normal, painfully unchallenging courses and did not have the support to even want to attend, apply to university.

Also, it helps me understand, that my network can be more proficient for my success, and that I am just at arms with myself to get it there. Phew, work is up ahead.

What is good to remember are his keypoints for success, I found it motivating to say that it required me 10,000 hours to be superfluous in my field and made me think not to waste time on other interest that lead to walled ends. Remember the story about the Termite, the boy who was reading at three years old, and making sense of a diabolical mathematic book at only 16. That he wasn't able to apply "practical knowledge" to make someone think for his benefit and they compared him with Nuclear bomb scientist who nearly killed his tutor. The first guy couldn't even switch a class due to his way of handling conversations with authority, but the other guy got away with attempted murder! It's this knowledge that may change my life, as well as my kids and more!

And, I am able to make a good suggestion - if you wish to acquire a successful female story, then "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sanberg may interest you. On NPR, critics discussed she takes a playdown approach about on her climb to success, and adversities. However, they talk about the best chapters being 10, 11, 12 - if I got this down correctly. As the rest may make you snore ... zzzzz

Thanks for the article!

Paul Grobstein's picture

being an outlier, happily?

"is success biologically and genetically based, or is it environmentally and culturally based?"

Interesting thoughts about what contributes to one feeling, or not feeling, "successful."  Maybe it isn't "success" but rather "feeling successful" that is so sensitive to the combination of biology and culture?  If we didn't have to worry about being successful we could all be happy outliers?