“Better late than never,” someone once said. Perhaps it was Benjamin Franklin; perhaps it someone else. In any case, while it would be ideal to read new books and review them within months of their release, for the humble Phoenix Literature Examiner with a To Read list longer than the refrigerator door, it often takes longer. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 “Outliers” has been a recommended must-read for years. Finally, I found out why.
The general premise of the book is to look at those outliers in our society, those individuals who have achieved something special or incredible based, seemingly, upon luck, chance, extreme intelligence, natural talent or skill. He investigates specific people like Bill Gates (you know, THE Bill Gates), Bill Joy (famed computer pioneer), and Robert Oppenheimer (of atomic bomb notoriety) while looking into lesser known examples and even phenomena within sports, like hockey. Out of the general premise has arisen one of the most-oft quoted details of the book: expertise in any field usually comes with at least 10,000 hours dedicated to learning and practicing a skill. While Gladwell insists that 10,000 isn’t a magic number, he does argue that a mass accumulation of time dedicated to one skill leads to an exceptional level of expertise, one that the people he profiled share in their respective fields.
What Gladwell delves into, though, is not this accumulation of hours, but instead the circumstances which allowed each of these individuals and groups to amass those hours. In each case, though the circumstances be different, they are universally linked to the idea that we are all a product of our environment: when we were born, where we grew up, who was (or wasn’t) looking over our shoulders, and the circumstances that preceded our existence — and in some cases, the existence of our parents. It is this argument that leads “Outliers” to be such a compelling and optimistic read.
In the education world, teachers have tossed “Outliers” into conversations, never expounding on its significance, but insisting that it’s a book to be read. After reading, it is simple to understand: people become “outliers” not because of innate abilities or talents, though those can certainly help, but they instead find success through factors mainly out of their control. All of us are born into a world and circumstances we cannot choose; for better or worse, those circumstances have a profound influence on whether or not we will be successful in life. Now, hear me out, I know this sounds precisely the opposite of optimistic. Just wait.
If we can only find success because we were born with an IQ over 140, then most of us are sunk. We have no hope. But because it isn’t only our innate abilities that drive us to success, but it is also the complex patchwork of circumstances that color our society’s history, our family’s history, and the particular history of the field in which we seek success that allows us to rise among the ranks and potentially become an outlier. Though it is still a gamble whether or not we were born into the right circumstances, the odds are still much greater than the odds of being born with a genius-level IQ. And because of that, we all have the chance to be great.
In the end, “Outliers” offers a perspective on success that is often overlooked in a culture of pulling up one’s self by the bootstraps and achieving the American dream: success isn’t for the lucky few, the lucky geniuses, or those who are substantially better or different than we are. Success is for all of us, within all of us, and a matter of opportunity afforded to us by those who come before…and at least 10,000 hours of good, hard work.