After the runaway success of his previous two offerings, Tipping Point and Blink, it is easy to predict a similar trajectory for Gladwell’s most recent book. Nearly four months after publication in hardback, it is still – at time of writing – number 108 in the chart of best-selling books at Amazon.co.uk: in America, it’s still in the top ten.
For a book that draws on academic social research to explore the factors behind human success stories, that’s a success story in itself: after all, this is not a book that will be serialised on a satellite channel featuring two pop-stars and an actor anytime soon. But does it explain its own success?It might help to explain what an ‘Outlier’ is, of course. Gladwell defines them as:
men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”
The book’s most ultimately controversial aspect is that Gladwell is implicitly arguing against the stereotype of the ‘self-made man’ (or, of course, woman) for much of the book. That stereotype – or should we go so far as to say cliché or even myth? – undoubtedly has its attractions to those most eager to wear it as a badge of pride.
My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances.”
There are many examples in the book, many illustrating neurologist Daniel Levitin’s assertion – cited approvingly by Gladwell that “10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class export – in anything”: The Beatles get the opportunity of endless hours on stage in Hamburg to practise their craft, while Bill Gates is born at the right age to fully exploit free computer access at his childhood’s neighbourhood university. Many people in Outliers seem to have been extraordinarily lucky – right down to their parents’ timing in conceiving them.
While congratulating – rather than blaming – the parents has a refreshing novelty, it brings its own problems. Highly engaging in weaving together a jaunty book from anecdotal fragments that cover everything to Korean airline crash statistics and national etiquette customs to the distribution pattern of birthdays of Canadian hockey majors (rather pointedly contested on factual grounds online by one online commentator), Gladwell’s weakness is that he doesn’t ever seem to argue for anything coherently.
He may fascinate, but the lesson remains unfocused and unclear. It is too easy to come away from the book thinking that you were born in the wrong month, year, neighbourhood or social class and that success was never going to be yours, and that you may never – in the words of The Independent’s review – have:
the ‘demographic luck’ of place, period and position that converts mere talent into triumph – and which makes this book such an outlying example of the case it seeks to make.”
Oddly, his subsequent published comments about the book or interviews make a clearer argument. On his own website, he writes about his concern that “our understanding of success was really crude”, and that
we’ve been far too focused on the individual—on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world.”
Asked, however, if his arguments don’t make it sound like success is something outside of an individual’s control, he replies: “I don’t mean to go that far” – yet his own book makes the rhetorical question a highly valid one.
Engaging, thought-provoking and amusing, the book probably ultimately fails as it attempts to straddle pop culture and detailed analysis: those it is aimed at most (“the bullet-point, 12-step, bootstrap-pulling market who devoured his books as self-help primers” as The Independent described them) might otherwise be unnerved by too much scientific analysis – or anything that philosophically rattled their cages further than that cautious “I don’t mean to go that far.”
If Outlierschallenges, it’s not with a great deal of menace. Perhaps this is ultimately valid: there are so many factors in success, that a simple rule book will always remain elusive. Equally possibly, Gladwell realises that his audience might buy the lack of ‘I’ in ‘team’ will baulk at as message as blunt as “there is no ‘f’ in magic bullet”.
Despite this, it does contain some valuable lessons – even if they might be fuzzily drawn in places: that practice really is vital as a development tool, and that talents don’t emerge fully-formed like butterflies from pupae. It also leaves an important message for today’s learning and development managers – those who travel furthest do so at least in part because they were given the opportunity to do so, and the encouragement to make the most of the opportunity.