Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell's third book, if you project it onto literary/pop-culture trilogies of the past, is more "Alien 3" than "Return of the King." I liked "Tipping Point" and "Blink" quite a bit, and you know, I alternately liked and disliked this one, but at the end, there's so many self-contridictions and fuzzy analogies that I just throw up my hands and ask, "What's the point?"

The basic thesis of this book is that many things count for success, and most of them are external to the individual's drive for success. Until of course the last chapter recommends abolishing summer vacation and making kids work in school from 7 to 5 to help them succeed more (doesn't that depend on the individual's discipline and drive for success?). And then there's this recent article by Gladwell about teaching, which clearly states that the best teachers are those who teach a year and a half of material in a year's time. Ok, we should identify and support efficient teachers (not make students work harder). But I thought that we should abolish summer vacation? Which is it? And don't say it's both -- the two arguments seem to happen in entirely different worlds.

One of the chapters is about how Korean Air turned around from a company with a reputation for accidents, by working on the air crew's communication, not technical skills. That's taken apart in this article. The problem is, very few people have the background to take apart all of the nine chapters here ... but I'm guessing each of them can be taken apart. The subject (success) is just too broad and the argument is just too sketchy and anecdotal. I'm sure counter-examples can be found in spades for every chapter.

And yet, and yet ... I'm very enamoured with one of his central theses, which is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at anything, and the "innate talents" we see are those who have had the chances to get their 10,000 hours in first. That's worth repeating. But it's not everything.

Gladwell explicitly agrees, he says that it's not everything. But then he implies that it is (with his repeated anecdotal examples that are supposed to encapsulate entire cultures).

I appreciate the anecdotes. But they are not strong enough to overturn entire cultural paradigms. In fact, it's not at all clear exactly what, beyond summer vacation, Gladwell wants to overturn.

In all, count me disappointed. I agreed with most of the individual chapters of the book, but it doesn't quite add up, and some of the chapters cancel each other out. Let's hope in the future we look back on this book as an outlier in Gladwell's output, one of the low kind.

1 comment:

Dwayne and Denise Need said...

I came here to see Brenden pix, but I was excited to see your post. I've read his first two books and got enough out of them to want to read this one as well. It's now on hold (700-something holds on 100 copies!) at the library.