Book Report: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell has called his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, an apology for his own success.  While that’s accurate, it also sells the ideas in Outliers short.  Really, it is about how big a role chance opportunity plays in being successful.  It’s actually a little scary when you think about it, but ultimately it makes some pretty compelling arguments that often minor changes in approach can have huge impacts on outcome.

My favorite stories from the book, which is just as good if not better than The Tipping Point:

  • An overwhelming majority of elite Canadian hockey players, around 70%, were born in January, February, and March.  Why?  Because the cutoff birthday for kiddie leagues is January first and players identified as being better at early ages who then get the benefit of access to better training aren’t really better, they more physically developed than their competition because they are slightly older.  Gladwell argues that if Canada would create multiple kiddie leagues more finely separated by age, they would have more elite hockey players.  As an added bonus, the same trend proved true in other countries with other sports.
  • In the late 1960’s, you were lucky if there was a computer terminal in your city, let alone at your high school.  Do you know who’s high school had one?  Bill Gates’, that’s who.  By logging hours and hours of computer time as a teen, he became an expert at writing computer software at just the right time to change the world.  Gladwell’s rough estimate is that you need 10,000 hours of training to be really good at something and Gates got that on software engineering before Paul Allen got on the plane to New Mexico to lead to Microsoft’s first sale.
  • A study that followed the same Baltimore school children from 1st through 5th grades and tested their progress in both June (at the end of the year) and September (at the beginning of the year) found that students learned the same throughout the year but socioeconomically disadvantaged kids learned very little or lost knowledge over the summers where their financially better off peers continued to gain knowledge.  Gladwell presumes this is because rich parents can afford to put their kids in summer programs while poor parents can’t and that if we adjusted the school year, which was set up in an era where most American’s were farmers and needed summers off to tend to land, so that it had fewer breaks we’d ultimately have more kids from low socioeconomic families in college.

There are many more examples like these in this great read and all point to the importance of access and when someone gets that access, as contributors to things going well for someone.  It has made me think carefully about the things I expose my 7 year old to, but also how I involve others in my decision making process.

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