Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - book review

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. It's an analysis of why or how successful people become successful.

Although the idea is good and there are some interesting insights, overall I think the book didn't really get me very excited.

**following content suitable for someone who has read the book, some spoilers ahead**

Malcolm starts out pretty well with the insight that some people are successful because of opportunities that come their way in which they had no hand in it - primarily using Canadian hockey selection as an example that favors children born earlier in the year. This is very true and does apply to other areas too especially in schooling.

However, after that, I tended to think that he gets a little confused - at some places he seems to want to say that people are successful because of things that happened to them, at other places because of the environment/age they were born in and at other times because they worked hard at it. Finally he seems to summarize it all in and say that everything has a hand in it - but that we know already - there isn't much insight in that.

I thought initially in the book that he seemed to be saying that more than innate ability and hard work - it was the opportunities, environment and other people's efforts that made successful people successful. But since that can't explain everything - he tempers it by saying that "of course these people had natural ability and worked hard".

The stories about the time of birth and about the opportunities that came to Bill Joy, Bill Gates and others are good examples of this.

Then he turns that around a bit - and seems to suggest that the "opportunity for hard work" was itself an opportunity - for example for the Beatles and for the Jewish garment workers turned lawyers.

There are two definite areas that I disagree with him.

First, about the opportunity presenting itself which caused the person to become successful. Here, Malcolm cites the example of Bill Joy (BSD Unix) as having gotten immense opportunity to code because of time-sharing of computers and that he luckily enrolled at a college that allowed him this facility. He further gives the example of the Beatles getting an opportunity to play regularly in Hamburg which allowed them to practice hard and hone their skills. Finally of Bill Gates who was lucky enough to go to a school that had the latest computers. To quote from the book -
We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. (emphasis mine).

I disagree with this hypothesis. I think Bill Joy must have been very hard working and talented. He was lucky that he went to University of Michigan that had a computer with time-sharing. But I think there were probably 50 other people who went to the same University that year and attended the same computer course and had the same opportunity to use that computer. And as Malcolm himself says - at least three other universities MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Dartmouth probably had that computer too and there would have been 50 odd people withe same opportunity to access the computer for long hours and who were born at the right time to be able to make use of that opportunity - so why did Bill Joy become the guy who wrote that Unix and become a legend? It can't just be because he was at the right place at the right time. Sure those were factors - but that is true for many others too. The same thing applies to Bill Gates and even to the Beatles. As Malcolm himself says that the Hamburg connection was to Liverpool and that there were many bands that went from Liverpool to play at Hamburg. It is conceivable that many of those bands also had the same opportunity to hone their skill and did practice for 10,000 hours each - but they didn't become the Beatles.

My second disagreement with him is with regards to the American schooling system and its concept of a long summer vacation. Malcolm makes the case that this is one of the primary reasons why American kids are falling behind. Now, this might be true and I can't positively say that the long summer vacation is right or wrong. But I definitely disagree with his emphatic bent to the other side. The other side being the Asian (Chinese/Japanese) concept of long hours and all time spent studying. It seems to me that what Malcolm is espousing makes kids work very hard and makes them pretty good at math - but it doesn't necessarily show me that it makes them capable to deal with life and to make a success of it. If I look at it from a different light - the Asian system makes kids "hard working" but not necessarily more "smarter or innovative".

As I see it, a lot more innovations came out of the United States, the US has the largest number of billionaires and possibly the largest number of "successful" leaders who made it big. All these people came out of the same education system. Asians on the other hand are considered very hard working and smart (intellectually) but aren't necessarily innovative or successful and as a general opinion - I would say lesser innovative ideas have come out of Asia than out of the US. Isn't it then that Malcolm Gladwell is actually asking for a system that will take the success out of the US rather than the other way around - it at least sounds debatable to me. Could Bill Gates have been successful also because he had those long summer vacations where he could go and work for other companies like TRW? Aren't the Indian kids who keep winning the spelling bee year-on-year also part of the same education system and enjoy the same summer vacation?

In the ending of the book, Malcolm Gladwell quotes the story of his own family starting with his great grandmother to make the case of how opportunities and timing have so much to do with success... reading this made me think of my own father who was one of seven children of a refugee grandfather running away from Bangladesh to Kolkata; and who took the unusual step (at that time in 1978) of taking up an overseas job in faraway Jakarta where even English wasn't spoken. That step probably led him to jump out of his circumstances and do much better than the rest of his siblings and many other such families. Now, I could make a case that the timing was right - he had finished his education in time, an opportunity for overseas work came along, etc and that all this had a major hand in him becoming successful in his own right. On the other hand, he had gotten married 5 years before, had just finished his degree, had three small kids all under five and immense pressure from everyone around that this was a bad idea. Also, such opportunities existed for many people in Calcutta at the time since some businessmen were investing overseas in different locations and wanted people of their community to work there. To sum, I would say that the individual ambition and will to take that opportunity were few of the key factors that made him successful. Of course, the timing and presence of opportunity had a role to play - but I don't think they were the critical success factors.

In the internet dot com world, we now regularly come across the saying that the idea is no big deal - there will be multiple people with the same idea at any given point of time - it's what you do with that idea, how you do it and how fast you do it and your own individual interpretation of the idea that will make you successful.

Another good example in this discussion is a comparison I read of Infosys and it's peers. We all know what a success Infosys has been. We also know that they started out in 1982 and struggled all the way till 1991 almost shutting down in 1989 (10,000 hour rule). We also know that circumstances favored them significantly because of Manmohan Singh opening up the economy and abolishing the CCI and freeing up the stock pricing regime - which allowed Infosys to go public and also use ESOPs to attract talent. So we could argue that Infosys makes a good case for Malcolm's theories - opportunity to practise, environmental factors, timing, etc just as he explains it.

However, dig a little deeper. Take the example of Mastek - which was very similar to Infosys. It also started in 1982. It too went public in 1992 taking advantage of the new IPO opportunities, opened a US office in 1992 and offered ESOPS in 1993. But obviously it has not grown anywhere near the scale of what Infosys has done. Why? What was the difference? A key difference was that in 1989 after all the tough years - Infosys decided to focus its energies on the export of software and Mastek decided to focus its energies on the domestic software market. We all know where the two decisions took these two companies. Similarly, why didn't Patni (where the Infosys founders worked) and who also had the opportunity of the 10,000 practice hours grow to the levels that Infosys did? Or for that matter Digital Equipment Corp, ICIM Fujitsu or PSI Data - all of which had been around since the late 70s? Or those which came later like my own IT employer who started in 1992 and closed down twelve-thirteen years later at a small size?

I think the insights put forward by Malcolm Gladwell in his book are interesting but simplistic. They do not really offer enough to be able to help figure out success better or how to be more successful.

It still remains as elusive for most.


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