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…