Book review: Outliers

malcolm gladwell speaking at pop!tech

Love him (I do) or hate him (many do), what most people find most vexing about Malcolm Gladwell’s books are the conclusions he draws in them.

Connecting a to b to c and coming up with 9. Telling story after fascinating story only to sum them up hastily with a big, fat WTF? Because, as others have pointed out, the same interesting and facile mind that skitters across the surface from topic to interesting topic can’t possibly dig deep into any one of them, much less be a schooled expert who has been soaking in the stuff since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, statistics at her fingertips and facility with fusing them into insights which are both truly new and truly supportable.* Because hey, he may be quicker and a better wordsmith, but he gets the same daily ration of 24 hours as the rest of us mere mortals.

So if the news isn’t so newsy and the conclusions a bit iffy, why read Gladwell? Aren’t those books over there in the business section, away from the “fun” sections, meant to edumacate ourselves with?

I say read Gladwell for two reasons. First, because he’s ridiculously readable. Eminently readable. Deliciously, dazzlingly readable. You can devour his books in a sitting or two, smacking your lips all the way, because they’re loaded to the gills with well-told, interesting stories. Avoid accepting anything as gospel (gospels very much included) and you can enjoy a whole lot more of everything, especially most business books.

The other reason to read Gladwell is because within the wonderfully-told stories are many, many useful nuggets you can take with you and muse on later. I may or may not buy into the broken windows theory of crime prevention, but I like that it stops me in my tracks and makes me wonder, “Well, what of this?” I like that it starts a conversation in my head.

Similarly, in Outliers, one particular exchange stuck in my head. It’s a conversation between a Korean employee and his higher-up, and it’s soaked in the kind of rich subtext that kept Pinter in business. I won’t quote the dialogue here (too lazy to type, plus that copyright thing), but here’s the salient point: what looks on the (Western, non-Korean) surface to be one thing is, in the context of the speakers’ native land, something entirely different.** And, well, that makes me think quite a bit about my own, supposably rock-solid communicationz skillz, and how I should maybe-possibly watch out for the assuming and get better at the communicationz-ing.

Do not read Outliers, then, to discover the secret of success. You already know it: be lucky, be good, and work hard. Gladwell seems to be pointing to luck as the x factor, which right there is kind of a no-duh conclusion, but he is also saying (and says he’s saying, so we’re clear) that each of us can factor into one another’s success. Done and done.***

Read it to find the stories that will inspire you to do or think the next good thing in your life.

Done. And done…


*Via Gladwell’s wikipedia entry, this NYT piece by Steven Pinker and this brutally cold takedown by Maureen Track for The Nation.

**The cultural anthropologists call the detangling of codes like this unpacking, which I love. My favorite unpacking story ever was related by Grant McCracken on his blog, which has been on my “read first” list for years, and which you should subscribe to right now. And if you’re in business, you should also buy his latest book, Chief Culture Officer, which I’ll review here at some point in the next couple of months. Go! Go!

***For example, you are my success and (hopefully), I am yours. Plus, if you click on one of these links, I get a nickel or something, which is helpful right now, I won’t lie.


  1. I admit, I’m vastly more media-isolated than the average person — I’ve never owned a tv, and my blog diet is highly restricted, like a hypertensive’s relationship to salt. Still — or perhaps therefore — the level of vitriol directed at Malcolm Gladwell never fails to take me by surprise.

    I have two questions. The first: if what he writes is so obvious and simple-minded, who before him said it? Where in the pages of The Nation do you recall reading about the 10,000 hours?

    The second: whose writing do you think will make you smarter or happier — Malcolm Gladwell’s or Maureen Tkacik’s? In a thousand years — or, for that matter, in a thousand days — do you think Maureen Tkacik’s writing will be much thought of?

    An old friend’s father is a Shakespeare-denier — that is, he’s a scholar devoted to proving that Shakespeare didn’t write most of what’s attributed to him. He’s well-known and has had books and articles published. He knows that — like Area 51 — the lack of evidence is, for a certain audience, the strongest evidence of the truth. Alas, he has read Shakespeare more times that anyone I know. It is thus with greatness, fortunately. Somehow, I don’t see someone writing a study of the great terrible-ness of Maureen Tkacik, “a financial journalist in New York City.” No. But I’m sure she’s a good Mom.

  2. I’m going to agree with Dan Owen here. Great link Colleen to an article I would have otherwise missed.
    I catergorize intelligence more with original thinking and flexibility than the kind of “research existing works to formulate an argument or back up one’s idea of themselves as an ‘intellectual’.
    I have known any number of “smart” people who worked very hard to earn that title by sheer breadth of knowledge, nimbly dodging the depth part. (otherwise known as the person who always smugly whips your ass in games of Trivial Pursuit, with the added bonus comments of ‘you didn’t know that?’ ). That is the impression I get from Tkacik.

    Gladwell does what he does well, and always has an original twist on what is basically just common human knowledge. I don’t really care if he is consistent in his arguments, because that really is not the point.

    Also, thanks for introducing me to the idea of “unpacking” — now there is a real term to describe the kind of thoughts that waste so much of my time and mental energy! I feel vindicated in a way that only a scholarly description of the obvious can provide.

    Love your blog, so keep it coming!

  3. Thanks for this great defense of Gladwell, whose work I also love. Reading him is better than caffeine for my brain. He gets me buzzing. You said it perfectly.

  4. Is there a phrase that tells you more about the person who utters it than “You didn’t know that?” I love it.

  5. Hee hee
    “You didn’t know that?” is the bastard cousin of “There was an article just last week in the NYT/New Yorker/ Wall Street Journal/Utne Reader that totally discredited the very thing you were talking about”. “You didnt read that?”

  6. Dan – You’re (almost) exactly right. The 10,000-hour rule had been written about elsewhere, but it was Gladwell who brought it to dazzling light with his use of skill and context. There’s great stuff published all over the damn place, all the damn time these days, which is why a lot of people are saying that the next wave of info change belongs to the synthesizers (and I hope they’re right, b/c some of these heretofore “useless” skills may now be more valuable in the marketplace. Savings and clean living and luck will only take one so far (although my experience has been that they’ll take me everywhere, so what do I know?).

    Dan & LIJ – Sadly, in my callow youth, I have hurled a “You didn’t know that?” or two. They shame me deeply. But then, I was pretty much a walking wreck of self-loathing and insecurities, so no big surprise.

  7. Communicatrix–
    I do believe there is a statute of limitations regarding 20 something moments of sheer youthful bravado. At least I sure as hell hope there is!
    All of the wooo woo new age self help tomes I read assure me that any reaction I have to anyone beyond a neutral observation or gentle affection is nothing but projection. Sadly there is a reason that I get so riled up in the presence of know-it-alls. (pot, meet kettle, oh hi! i must have met you before…you seem so familiar)

  8. I’m always skeptical of anyone who reaches iron clad conclusions to the way life works….in my experience, life is anything but iron clad. Nonetheless I think the man deserves major props for encouraging people to think laterally, to be open to accepting counterintuitive conclusions. Healthy skepticism is like a muscle, you need to exercise it for it to work well.

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