by, Malcom Gladwell
I had read Blink by Malcom Gladwell a couple of years ago and found it to be insightful but a little repetitive in writing style. The writing and content of Outliers is an improvement from Gladwell’s previous work. The piece is full of intriguing stories of real life success with the intent of explicating Gladwell’s theory that success is not an innate outcome of gifted attributes. Gladwell’s basic premise is that nobody gets anywhere in life without being in the right place at the right time with the right support system and the right opportunities.
This theory isn’t new; I just have to look at my current conundrum in my attempt to find a nursing job as an example. Three years ago before the market crash a new graduate nurse could have a job within days of graduating; those lucky candidates had the opportunity of a nursing shortage and an economy that supported the investment of young talent. Now the market has kept potential retirees working longer, holding up positions that would be open for new graduates and this is further complicated by the fact that there is less free capital available for hospitals to operate the high cost of new graduate programs to support new nurses. These are all the wrong conditions for success.
Throughout Outliers Gladwell uses such examples above to show how success is based upon the right conditions. He starts small by showing how certain sports stars are selected at a young age due to age cutoff dates that cause the oldest athletes to always have more practice experience than kids born 364 days after them. Year after year the older athletes are selected by scouts because they appear to have more talent than the younger kids, but really what is viewed as talent is based a selection process built upon an arbitrary age cutoff date: the youngest kids might have the right talent but because of their inexperience they are robbed of the opportunity to shine and be promoted along the path toward professional sports. The age selection theory applies to the dot-com tycoons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who were born during the right time in the 1950’s so that when they grew up they had opportunities to spend hours learning programming when computers were developing along side them. It also applies to people born in the depression era when birth rates were low: their generation’s lower birth rate provided less competition and more opportunity as they were educated in the 40’s and 50’s and as they came of age professionally in the 60’s and 70’s.
The strength of Outliers lies not in the stories of success, but in the stories of failure. Gladwell uses two examples of Korean and Columbian airline crashes to show how the Korean and Colombian cultural system of professional hierarchy inhibited the second officer pilots from dishonoring their captain or speaking up to American air traffic controllers before it was too late. Investigation into the pattern of plane crashes in these airlines discovered the impact of culture on professional interaction and improvements have been made to train pilots to use standards of communication that promote teamwork instead of hierarchy with the result of less crashes. Similar studies of culture have been done to investigate the differences between middle class and lower class American’s interaction with authority. The studies show that lower class citizens lack the skills needed to speak up for themselves to their teachers and doctors and therefore lose out the opportunity to better their lives. Gladwell uses an example of a unique middle school in the New York that takes lower class kids on a lottery system and once enrolled into the school, the students must work longer school days with several hours of homework. Ninety percent of the graduates of the middle school go on to competitive high schools and 80% go on to college. The results of this program show that success is not an innate skill, that it can be fostered and developed even in those who are disadvantaged.
This leads me to what I believe is Gladwell’s underlying theme in this work about our society’s beliefs about success, we as a society have an opportunity to improve society as a whole, but it will require that we change our beliefs about what is innate about success:
“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantage that today determine success – the fortunate birthdates and happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunity for all.” (268)