Another audiobook of something I had been wanting to read for a while but couldn’t get myself in the mood to sit down and read.  Non-fiction seems to lend itself to audio I find.

Anyway, the subtitle for Outliers is: The Story of Success, which explains it a bit more.  I’d come across Gladwell from his New Yorker articles and a book on what makes the people who have achieved massive success sounded interesting.  I wasn’t wrong, but as I read the book I found myself disagreeing more and more with his conclusions and examples.

The book covers topics such as timing and opportunities, showing how the best Canadian hockey players are typically born at the start of the year because of the way the selection process works.  He uses Bill Gates to show how being in one of the few places in the world where he could get as much access to a computer helped him become a billionaire and how 10,000 hours is a magic number for practice in any discipline.

He goes on to discuss things like cultural legacies explaining how Asians typically do better at maths and how the hierarchy of some cultures leads to aircraft accidents.

The problem I found was that there was no depth in the research done.  I knew a bit about the Gates/Microsoft history, enough to know they bought DOS, they didn’t build it, so programming skill was of no importance (in fact, they hired someone to adapt it for IBM, to whom they licensed it and made their fortune).  It was also obvious that 10,000 hours practice isn’t enough to make you great.  It’ll make you good, but in every field there are plenty of examples of people who had the opportunities and the hours under their belt, they stood beside giants, but never became one themselves.  So while it’s a factor, something else turns you from good to great. (I discuss some of the flaws of the book here.)

That factor is the thing Gladwell completely misses.  Never once did he mention that most of his outliers bet the farm at one point or another, where they made a decision, committed everything they had and could have gone under.  In some cases they were just lucky, they happened to be in an industry that exploded.  If IBM decided to buy DOS rather than licence it, which is the reason their prior deal with Digital Research fell through, no one would have heard of Microsoft.

So while the book is thought provoking and raises some interesting points you may never have considered before, it’s ultimately a flawed work.  It’s written in an enjoyable style, easy to understand and provides some interesting insights into people and industries you might not have thought of, but as a study on success it fails.

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This was an copy of the book

Reviewed: 21st July 2011