An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

For a book that is subtitled “The story of success”, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers contains one strange omission. Nowhere in the book does he define or discuss the concept of success. The closest he comes is his comment that outliers are “men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary.” He discusses geniuses, business tycoons, rock stars, and software programmers, without ever identifying why he considers them to be successful. In most cases they have built a successful business and made lots of money – but isn’t there more to the concept of success than that?
After a lot of consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the book fundamentally reflects a male point of view and a go-out-and-conquer-the-world mentality. Most women in contrast would consider success to be a more holistic concept. I think we can all agree Bill Gates is a successful man, but would we still consider him “a success” if he had a dysfunctional family life and a drug addiction? In other words, by Gladwell’s standards, Charlie Sheen would arguably be up there as a success story.
This bias also flavours the rest of the book. Gladwell’s thesis is that environment is the fundamental predictor of success, much more so than innate talent. He claims that as a general rule, 10,000 hours of practice at something are required to become successful at it, although again it’s not clear what success is likely to mean in this context (does this get you to worlds-best standard or country-best, or only best in your city?) I don’t argue with the claim that practice makes perfect, or even that practice is more important than innate talent. However I do think that this criteria also explains why all Gladwell’s examples are men. Women’s lives are often a balancing act as they try to manage various responsibilities. Success for us is often getting through the day without dropping any of the balls we are constantly juggling. Dedicating 10,000 hours to something is often simply out of the question. If Gladwell is correct, perhaps this explains why there are not more women at the top levels of business.
To summarise, I think that Gladwell has both failed to define success but at the same time defined it too narrowly. Or perhaps the real question is whether the word “success” is the appropriate one. I enjoyed reading this book – it’s extremely well written and interesting – but upon finishing it I felt somewhat disappointed. I accept Gladwell’s conclusions as far as they go, as a model of the factors that create one type of “success,” but I think he has failed to realise the limitations of the questions he is asking. In particular, half the population seems to have been excluded from the analysis. If Gladwell couldn’t find any examples of successful women to interview, I would suggest there is a flaw with his definition of success, and the fact that the definition is never explicit to begin with only compounds the error.
So judging him by his own standards: Gladwell’s book has sold a lot of copies, therefore he’s a success. By the standards of academic rigour and gender equality however, if not a fail, I’d mark this book “can do better.”