Matt Carberry (kingpin248) wrote,
Matt Carberry

"Outliers": the season's must-read

Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. The New Yorker writer, already with two number one bestsellers under his belt, recently dropped Outliers: The Story of Success, and I don't doubt that it'll follow the same course as The Tipping Point and Blink.

The central thesis of Outliers is not particularly new, nor is it off the wall. Gladwell argues that those who rise to the top benefit not only from their own hard work, but from the societal forces that surround them. But it's the nature of those societal forces that makes this book compelling and refreshing. His first major example is Canadian age-class hockey, which gives enormous advantages to those born early in the year. (Wayne Gretzky's birthday: 1961-01-26.) After that, he talks about Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and The Beatles, who need no introductory moniker. The common denominator: when they came upon go time, they were battle tested, to the tune of ten thousand hours each. Gladwell goes on to talk about geniuses and Jewish lawyers (to the potential benefit of a friend of mine from high school). He then changes course and dissects the importance of cultural legacy, with an analysis that spans nineteenth-century Appalachia, failures in aviation (including the memory-stirring Avianca Flight 52), and the rice paddies of South China. He concludes by detailing certain fortunate circumstances in his own lineage, leading to his mother attending British university on scholarship and emigrating to Canada. Every chapter, every story makes you view the circumstances in a new way.

Above all others, two thrusts of this work struck deep chords within me. One was Gladwell's definition of "meaningful work." As he relates the story of Louis and Regina Borgenicht and their rise in New York's turn-of-the-century garment industry, he posits three qualities that comprise meaningful work: complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward. I laughed when I read this. For one, it's largely true, and for two, I can (and will) argue that toil in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program bears none of those three qualities. Of course, others will pick and choose aspects of this thing we do that will refute that, but I won't be convinced. But more interesting to me than the meaningful work argument is Gladwell's connection of class, parenting styles, and the advantages accruing from the combination of those two factors.

Two full chapters of Outliers are devoted to "The Trouble With Geniuses." One of the points made in this portion of the book is that there's a difference between "analytical" and "practical" intelligence. This wasn't news to me at all - I've known for years of the separation between those two qualities, except that I call them "book smarts" and "street smarts." Not long ago, I expressed regret at possessing plenty of the former but little of the latter. (A year and a half ago, I took an online IQ test, and scored 133.) Gladwell's words on the subject shed some light on a cause, in a way that fits with my own experience. His discussion of the differences between what he calls "concerted cultivation" and "natural growth" made stirred many thoughts, mostly of my own upbringing. I've always described myself as coming out of a blue collar family in a white collar town. And it is, to me, undeniable that my parents took the "natural growth" tack with regard to raising me and my brother. I also thought of the youngest university professor in the history of the world, Alia Sabur, who happens to hail from the same town as yours truly. I wondered if I'd have had a different life if my parents had been concerted cultivators. (Shortly thereafter, I crushed such thoughts with "you're twenty-seven years old. It's on you now.")

Outliers is a great read, regardless of where you come from or how you were brought up. Go out and get it, time now.
Tags: books

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