November 2008

Gladwell’s secrets of success

By Malcolm Gladwell
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After exploring the dynamics of social change in The Tipping Point, and decision-making in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell turns to the subject of success in his new book, Outliers. Written in Gladwell's typical breezy, conversational style, Outliers seeks to discover what makes people smart, wealthy or famous. Gladwell argues that in studying successful people, we spend too much time on what they are like and not enough time on where they are from. In other words, he believes that it is "their culture, their family, their generation and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringings" which determines their success.

One of the joys of Gladwell's writing is the way he explains complex theories using everyday examples. In Outliers, he makes the case that success is sometimes shaped by the smallest factors. Take a person's birthday. The most successful Canadian hockey players are born in January, February and March, Gladwell writes, simply because the cut-off date for age class hockey in Canada is January 1. Thus, those born after that date are held back a year, giving them an age and size advantage.

Environment also plays a big role in success. Gladwell compares the lives of two geniuses: physicist Robert Oppenheimer and a little-known Missouri man named Christopher Langan. Both were tested and found to have high IQs. But Gladwell argues that Oppenheimer had a huge advantage being raised in a wealthy, educated family, while Langan was born into a poor, broken family. Oppenheimer went to Harvard and Cambridge and helped develop the nuclear bomb. Langan had poor grades in school, never finished college and makes money competing on TV game shows.

Then there is the factor of opportunity in shaping success. Why was Bill Gates successful? Well, he was smart, but he also grew up when the personal computer was coming of age, offering him opportunities to tinker and create new software. Gladwell's unique perspective challenges readers to think about intelligence, success and fame in a new way. Outliers is a clever, entertaining book that stimulates readers' minds and broadens their perspectives. It is, in its own way, genius.

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By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316017923

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