Saturday, February 20, 2010

Book Review: "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

This book has been very popular - I noticed this morning that it has been on the New York Times bestselling list for 64 weeks.

It's a quick read. Mr. Gladwell writes for The New Yorker, and to me the book had the feel of a long magazine article.

That said, it was very interesting, and I found myself thinking about some of his observations long after I had finished reading.

For example, Gladwell notes that intelligence is an overrated aspect of success. In fact, he makes the persuasive argument that once a certain IQ level is reached intelligence becomes almost irrelevant. He even suggests (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that admissions to prestigious schools like Harvard become more like a lottery: all applicants who have demonstrated a certain intelligence level would be thrown into a drawing, with students drawn at random.

Persistence, however, is a quality that nearly all successful people seem to share. Gladwell suggests a "10,000 hour" rule: if one is to become truly outstanding at a particular endeavor, a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice, study and hard work seem to be necessary. This is fairly daunting, once you think about it: if you were a musician who practiced 3 hours a day, 7 days a week, this would imply about 1,100 hours of study a year. According to this rule, then, one would need to spend at least 10 years of intensive study to become truly proficient at a given endeavor.

Gladwell spends a lot of time on different cultures, and the various ways that societies around the globe interact. He has a number of pages studying Korean culture, and the possible ways that the hierarchical way that Korean society interacts may have contributed to at least one Korean airliner crash. On the other hand, Asian cultures have tended to produce more than their fair share of exceptional math and science students, and Gladwell believes that this too is the result of cultural influences rather than innate intelligence.

I'm not a sociologist, so I have no way of judging whether some of his conclusions can stand up to close scrutiny, but most of the book rang true to me.