Outliers is the study of success and an attempt to reconceptualize the traits and factors that we typically associate with success. Gladwell is eminently readable and he builds his arguments in an engaging way - usually with some rather startling or puzzling statistics, or a story of success, that is then analyzed to reveal some broader concept or meaning behind the nature of the theme: what makes some individuals so spectacularly successful, and others not?
What's great about Outliers is that Gladwell is not afraid to focus in on the importance of factors that have for a long time, at least in America, been considered taboo since the Civil Rights Movement. What role does ethnicity play in someone's success? Are Korean pilots inferior to pilots of other ethnicities? Are American Jews more likely to succeed than members of other immigrant groups? Can poor children really learn? Gladwell does an admirable job tackling these questions without a hint of bias or racism, or even ethnocentrism. (It's not that Koreans are poor pilots, it's the culture as it relates to authority that made them more prone to easily avoidable accidents in the 60s and 70s.) This is particularly so for that time-honored question in American education: are Asians better at math? Gladwell does his homework, both sociologically and historically to put forth some compelling arguments that we are as much a byproduct of our upbringing, our geography and our time as we are of our genetics. Perhaps more so. In the broader philosophical conceptualization: nurture is more significant than nature. This is a wonderful idea, and the evidence is fairly solid, though one can conceivably poke holes in some of it as being tailored specifically for the argument and rather subjective. It is a hopeful idea, especially in the realm of education reform that hard work does
matter much more than your family background or income and that these traits can be learned
. It's also not a bad idea to poke holes in the myth of genius that we've built up in America, especially since the days of Horatio Alger and the booming business tycoons of the 19th century. It's a marked step on the road to both racial and socioeconomic equality that we recognize, sociologically and informationally, that all people are capable of success, and that we can breed success for a better society if we're willing to abandon our preconceived notions of it.
The book tends to be repetitive. By the time Gladwell gets to his third or fourth example of a life-study, you're already anticipating where he's going with it. The people profiled are interesting, but you just want more of the analysis than the life story. He has a tendency to over-emphasize too, as if he's insecure about whether or not the reader is really going to appreciate the point he's trying to make, and the ending chapter on his own personal history seems to drag the work out rather than end it with definitive punctuation. His anecdote likely would have worked better toward the beginning or the middle, with the ending reserved for the KIPP story and the idea of transforming society to take new factors of success into account.
Worth reading, and definitely has peaked my interest in reading Gladwell's other book, The Tipping Point, which from what I've gathered from other reviewers, is much better. In short, this could have been an extended article or blog post series and worked far more effectively at a much leaner size. That's not to say that it isn't enjoyable. It is immensely so and immersive, but with so many other good things waiting to be read on my shelf, I found myself skimming some parts when I felt like I knew where he was going. Maybe that's more my fault than his. Or perhaps the arguments are so intuitive, that it seems like he's just voicing something that an observant reader probably already knows.