Akhirnya’s CBR #43: Outliers by Malcom Gladwell (452p.)

This is a book that, while you are reading it, is endlessly interesting.  Each little anecdote brings to mind something else, and you wind up connecting these stories to other stories of your own.  But then, when you’re finished, you’re left wondering what the heck it was that you just read.  This is not because the ideas were so profound, but because the whole thing was just so darn profoundly confusing.  I couldn’t really get a pulse on what Gladwell’s main arguement was, beyond point out that it was all very complex.

It’s clear that he feels that systems of talent sorting are detrimental to the actual development of talent.  The 10,000 hours rule of practice before mastery can be achieved is also pretty straightforward.  But when he falls into the role of Captain Obvious, declaring that there are a whole confluence of factors beyond talent and practice that lead to the success of some and failure of others, the whole focus of the book sort of falls apart.  That there are many factors to success is not surprising at all for me, but what’s odd is Gladwell’s unwillingness to allow failure to have so many factors.  He makes it sound like boys playing hockey that were born in the fall have no chance at all, dismissing their ability to even make it in the door.  Yet some of his lists had kids that were born in December.  By Gladwell’s definition, these would be the TRUE outliers, yet they are never examined at all.  Chris Langan, who has a ridiculously high I.Q., was unable to make it in academia because he was born in poverty and couldn’t self-advocate.  Although Gladwell’s portrayal of what happened to Langan pulls at your heart strings, I’m not sure that painting him to be an overlooked hermit is very even-balanced.  I don’t know about you, but being invited to game shows, getting profiled on 20/20, having columns in various magazines, and being part of a number of high I.Q. societies isn’t very reclusive to me.  Yes, he could be more – but that’s something he chooses not to do.

Outliers really lost its steam about two thirds of the way through, when he decided to give an in-depth account of why Korean pilots had a spate of crashed commercial airliners.  I get the points that he’s trying to make about culture, but it just seemed like a fairly radical departure from the rest of the book, from which he never seemed to recover.  Although I found the discussion of the achievement gap in American schools to be extremely interesting, it just didn’t follow up well upon the Korean pilots, especially because it seemed to be more of a retread of his 10,000 hours argument rather than anything else, even if it didn’t bother to acknowledge it directly.

That said, it was still an enjoyable read, and if nothing else, it was intellectually stimulating.  I’m not sure that I would recommend it, but if it’s on your reading list already, then I’d hardly suggest skipping it.


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