my and the pros’ reviews of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (read by the author)

My thoughts:  some very interesting tidbits, but the least compelling of Gladwell’s oeuvre

I thoroughly enjoyed Gladwell’s previous two books (The Tipping Point and Blink), and I found neither convincing in its central thesis. Gladwell has a flare for making psychology and social psychology research easily digestible and interweaving it with case studies to provide a satisfying mix that is inherently interesting, high entertainment value, and insightful into how we behave. That said, in neither of the previous books did I find that this tapestry of experiments and case studies really convinced me of the central thesis.

The thesis of this newer book is that people who are exceptionally successful – outliers – are a product of their environments much more than they are individually exceptional. First, Gladwell keeps knocking down a straw man that no one really believes anyway. I think we all know that environment matters a lot, and Gladwell never really accounts for the individual elements. Yes, the Beattles got 10,000 hours to practice in Hamburg, but were there other bands that played in Hamburg every year but didn’t go big? Yes, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born at a special time and had a special set of privileges, but what about Bill Gates’s friends in his same high school computer club? What computer empire did they create? In other words, the individual element which Gladwell seems so excited to downplay still has to play a major role; or at least, Gladwell hasn’t convinced me that it doesn’t.

The most interesting part of the book deals with air plane crashes because it goes back to Gladwell’s successful formula: a mix of social science research (in this case, on cross-cultural hierarchy something something) and case studies – of major plane crashes.

Gladwell still tells a good story, but this one is much less convincing than his previous work.  I listened to the unabridged audiobook, and Gladwell narrates well.  At the end of the audiobook, there is an interview with Gladwell which really belongs at the beginning; it gives an intro to the book that is totally superfluous after having read it.

Note on content: There might be a swear word or two in here; and in the epilogue there is one description of slave treatment which is not pretty (but is historical), but otherwise this is innocuous sailing.

The pros’ clips are below the fold…

New York Times: “Outliers,” Mr. Gladwell’s latest book, employs this same recipe, but does so in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology. The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people — like Bill Gates and the Beatles — are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing.

New York Times Book Review: “Outliers” has much in common with Gladwell’s earlier work. It is a pleasure to read and leaves you mulling over its inventive theories for days afterward. It also, unfortunately, avoids grappling in a few instances with research that casts doubt on those theories. (Gladwell argues that relatively older children excel not only at hockey but also in the classroom. The research on this issue, however, is decidedly mixed.) This is a particular shame, because it would be a delight to watch someone of his intellect and clarity make sense of seemingly conflicting claims. … For all these similarities, though, “Outliers” represents a new kind of book for Gladwell. “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” his second book, were a mixture of social psychology, marketing and even a bit of self-help. “Outliers” is far more political. It is almost a manifesto.

Guardian: The trouble with the book is that Gladwell is ultimately engaged in a long argument with nobody but himself. Throughout, he defines his position against a floating, ubiquitous, omnipotent ‘we’; a Greek chorus of predictable opposition and received opinion. ‘There is something profoundly wrong with the way we look at success,’ he writes. ‘We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.’ And so he goes on. … However, it’s still fun to follow Gladwell on his meandering intellectual journeys, even if the conclusions he arrives at here are so obviously self-evident as to be banal. Even when he is not at his best he is worth taking seriously. He has a lucid, aphoristic style. His case studies are well chosen, such as when he writes about the birth dates of elite ice hockey players and discovers a pattern: most are born in the first three months of the year. His range is wide, and he writes as well in Outliers about sport as he does about corporate law firms in New York or aviation. Little is beneath his notice.

Entertainment Weekly: A couple of best-selling books (The Tipping Point, Blink) and a forest’s worth of must-read New Yorker articles into his career, Malcolm Gladwell has turned himself into the literary world’s Mr. Wizard. … Expertly versed in not only science but business and psychology, Gladwell is a poufy-haired showman with a knack for explaining anything to everybody, from dog whispering and fads to disposable diapers and snap judgments. His books in particular — written in a noticeably more populist, teacherly voice than his New Yorker articles — are rigged to blow open the heads of even the dimmest of general readers. And his latest, the explosively entertaining Outliers, might be his best and most useful work yet. … There are both brilliant yarns and life lessons here: Outliers is riveting science, self-help, and entertainment, all in one book.

Business Week: 4 out of 5 stars.  The Good: Another ‘Aha!’ book from the best-selling writer, Malcolm Gladwell.  The Bad: One wonders: Did he leave out evidence that contradicts his thesis about success?  The Bottom Line: Challenging common assumptions, Outliers will have readers pondering their own destinies.

The Independent: Time and again, Gladwell writes against a cornball caricature of can-do Americanism. This pure voluntarist dogma figures as a straw man he never tires of knocking down. Not only has no European ever credited it, but I doubt if any of the 67 million US voters who chose Obama has either. “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities,” he repeats, “and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them”.

Christian Science Monitor:  Thought-provoking, entertaining, and irresistibly debatable, “Outliers” offers lively stories about an unexpected range of exceptional people – Korean airline pilots, New York litigators, immigrant garment workers, Asian math whizzes, low-achievers with high IQs, and, for good measure, Gladwell’s Jamaican grandmother.  Overall, it’s another winner from this agile social observer.

Marginal Revolution (the economics blog), links to a few other published reviews

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