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Outliers by Malcom Gladwell: a review and reflection

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I finished the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell . (I listened to the audio version available at my library.) I enjoyed it tremendously.

The premise of the book is that we tend to credit outstanding performers (“outliers”) with outstanding skill. While Gladwell does acknowledge that all outliers do have top-notch ability, he makes the case that ability is not enough: there also needs to be some external situation that enable this ability to jettison a person to the upper rungs of performance. Since many people have ability, but few people have favorable circumstance, we should really credit the circumstance with the generation of peak performance.

The book is not science in the true sense of the term: There are no controlled experiments to show that ability is a weaker predictor of success than is circumstance. However, one could argue that such a controlled experiment is impossible: you can’t hold all other things equal—and Gladwell has come pretty close to performing the experiment (retrospectively) by considering both people with great talent and great circumstance that accelerate to the pinnacle of their field, and people that have great talent but not circumstance. The best we can say is that Gladwell is a journalist and he has gone beyond the 3-example rule to give evidence of his hypothesis. However, he has not scientifically proven it. A larger (statistically valid) study could prove it.

That said, his description of how things happen rings true with me. I can’t say that I’m at the pinnacle of my field. (Lately, I can’t even define the field.) However, I did benefit from some good circumstances in my life:

  • When I was in the 5th (?) grade, my dad brought home an HP computer from work. I quickly began programming in BASIC and plotting sinusoids. I learned a lot about both math and programming from the experience. My parents continued to buy computers: I started programming on Windows 3.1 when I was in 7th/8th grade.
  • After I finished the 6th grade, my parents moved us to the US. This was a designed shift in circumstance. My parents wanted my sister and I go to high school and college in America. They worked very hard to get us here.
  • Going to University of Illinois, I met someone who would later be a partner at Infinium. That certainly helped get me in the door at Infinium.

In addition, it’s clear to me that Infinium itself illustrates the sort of paradigm shift that Gladwell talks about in the book: the founders of Infinium predicted that things would go digital and be software-driven—and that one could then do automated trading.

The chapter on the Canadian hockey teams also reinforces a principal I’ve learned over the years: coaching is for everyone, not just for your good players. I think in corporate environments, there’s an over-emphasis on differentiating talent. That differentiation is good. However, it tends to get confused with where managers spend their time. That’s a shame; as the book shows, structures that seem to be meritocracies can be fatally flawed. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book . I especially recommend it for teachers, managers, and parents. (Yes, I know that covers a lot of ground.)

Written by PoojanWagh

July 2nd, 2009 at 7:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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