Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell (2008)


I found the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for sale in the Amsterdam Airport (Schipol), even though it doesn’t get released in the US until next week, and read it straight through on the flight across the Atlantic.

As always with Gladwell, it’s a smooth read with plenty of good stories about success.  His notion here is at least partly quite obvious, that successful people in fact did not just ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ but rather got plenty of help and lucky breaks (along with being talented and very hard working).

But the larger story is uncovering areas where we inadvertently organize things in a way that prevents more people from being successful, by failing to ‘level playing fields’ in areas where we could.  The lead story of the book is about the preponderance of Canadian professional hockey players who are born in the beginning months of the year.  This situation derives from the January 1st cutoff for young player hockey leagues, where a 6-11 month age difference can be huge in terms of physical abilities and skills.  So a player born in December has to be truly exceptional to stand out, and get picked for the better leagues where they will get more attention and playing time.

So a question is how many social patterns like that can there be?  Well, probably plenty.  Presumably the same situation exists in elementary schools, where older kids in a grade are picked for advanced classes more often than the younger kids.  Gladwell suggests a reorganization of things into 4-month cohorts rather than full year.

Gladwell’s book is a fun way to examine your thoughts about what makes people successful, and it will probably make you question some of your assumptions.

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