Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell – Outliers

I don’t think I have ever been working this hard in my life until the last few weeks. It is the first time I feel like working/studying from dawn to dusk (of course, that’s a metaphor since I can never get up at dawn). Today is Saturday, a perfect day to take a break and do something else other than write a mathematical proof. In this article, I will review a book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Below are my thoughts on several arguments made my Malcolm in the book.

The Matthew Effect or The Rich Gets Richer

When we look at a successful professional, be it a concert pianist or a renowned entrepreneur, we think he or she is special. We seem to understand how difficult it is to succeed in life. Everybody knows that we need both talent and a lot of hard work to achieve a great career. Nothing is wrong with that belief. It just does not tell the whole story.

In Outliers, Malcolm discuss a phenomenon of young ice hockey players in Canada. Somehow, the most promising players were mainly born in the first half of the year. It is absurd to believe the date of birth can affect your hockey skill. Indeed it does. Being born early in the year gives a kid a few more months of practice than another born late in the same year. A few more months may not sound a big deal for adult players, but for a five-year-old kid, that short period of time can make the difference. The better players are then selected into better teams with better coaches. These kids also have the opportunity to play with good teammates in competitive leagues. They accumulate experience fast and constantly improve as a result. Ten years later, we can guess who is better, the kid born early versus the kid born late.

Success requires good fortune, it seems. The question is: Can we create our own good fortune?

Work Hard and Watch Out for Opportunities

We cannot predict the future. However, we can prepare for it and wait for the right opportunity. How? The tentative answer is to choose a meaningful work and do it really well. But what is the definition of meaningful work? Let me try to explain it in a few sentences.

Meaningful work is something that not only compensates us well (not just money), but also contributes to society. Take Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham as examples, they do only one thing well – playing soccer – and that is enough to be a meaningful work. Their soccer skills entertain fans around the globe, and people readily pay big bucks to watch them playing. Meanwhile, no one ever will pay to watch me play, indicating professional soccer cannot be meaningful to me although I might be dying to play soccer day in, day out. In short, a meaningful work is a work that you enjoy doing, and it should serve people in some meaningful way, and people will reward you, usually in the form of salary and status. If you want to read more about meaningful work, Cal Newport surely has a much better explanation than I do.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell lists several characters who have meaningful work: Bill Gates, The Beatles, Joe Flom among them. They shared a similar story. They worked really hard at first even though they never knew how successful they would be. They simply focused on honing their skills in their respective careers and look for opportunities to serve the society. Eventually they took the opportunities to shine and were recognized as successful.

Note that success is relative anyway. Success cannot be quantified. For me, success means that I have enough money to feed my family, and I enjoy my job. I like a simple and happy life.

Cultural Heritage and Its Influence

The last topic I want to mention is cultural heritage. Malcolm spends a significant part of the book to tell stories about different cultures. They vary from an Italian town in Pennsylvania where its residents are extremely healthy, another town in the American South where people are ridiculously violent, Robert Oppenheimer versus Chris Langan, to the alarming number of plane crashes of Korean Air. All of the stories convey the fact that many people are not aware of the power of their cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage defines who we are, influences what we do and how we think. I know this too well after coming to the US from Vietnam. The two cultures cannot be more different. I suffer from this difference even in simple, everyday conversations with Americans. I still don’t know how to handle a conversation in a large group. I used to blame my own personality for my failure to communicate. But truth be told, I just do not fully understand their culture as well as my own.

Adaptation is a crucial part of any success story. As an instance, the Jewish immigrants of New York in the early 20th century, as told by Malcolm, worked hard in negotiation skills. Despite the language barrier, many Jewish immigrants could expand their markets by negotiating with American capitalists. Right now, negotiation is only something I wish I could do.

This lesson, and not the popular “10,000 hours rule”, is what I appreciate most in Outliers. I will definitely try to work on my public speaking and negotiation skills. The time has come to grow up.


Author: Tri M. Cao

Music with my beloved HD 650 headphones.

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