Book review: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

This book is not exactly new, having been released quite a number of years ago. Like all good books, however, it retains a relevance that can’t be dated. It was recommended to me through a forum of photographers on Facebook. I wish I’d read it sooner.

First of all, what exactly is an “outlier”? Gladwell says an outlier is “a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience.” He also classifies an outlier as “someone who has been given opportunities and has had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

Much of what is discussed in the book emphasizes time and place. Time meaning the “right” time. In other words, timing in general. Bill Gates and a host of early computer pioneers including his friend and cohort, Paul Allen, Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems), Steve Jobs (Apple), and others were born between the years 1953-56. This put them in the right place age-wise for when the computer age began to blossom and innovation took off. Their combined work led to the gadgets and knowledge we take so for granted today. Each one of these people, and many like them who were part of the early computer “movement” of the 1970s, were born around the same time but also came from families or cultures that encouraged them to ask questions, think deeply, and challenge “accepted” theories.

And Gladwell is keen to point out upbringing and culture as major factors in creating outliers. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist of the Manhattan Project and widely considered genius, grew up in New York with loving parents who encouraged him to think outside the box and always ask questions. Contrast this with Christopher Langan, also considered a genius with an IQ of 195. He never finished college, dropping out to concentrate on making a living. His upbringing was marred with family dysfunction and little formal education or encouragement. Very smart but not making a huge impact in the world, he now runs a ranch in Montana. Why? His “culture,” his family, wasn’t nurturing or encouraging. This, says Gladwell, is a major factor in how outliers blossom and do great things.

Culture, or “the way things are done,” can actually impede and sometimes lead to disaster. He briefly shows this in examples of airline disasters of the past, and how culture and hierarchy in those cultures prevented true communication and reasonable dissent within the environment of the airplane cockpit. Lessons from unfortunate mistakes, mistakes that caused loss of life, were learned, and courses were corrected. Now the rate of airline disaster, no matter the future or background of the flight crews, has dramatically been reduced.

The “outliers” in these cases are those who saw what needed to be done and did it. Cultures can change, and people with them, if we are willing to make the effort and put in the time to make the change happen. In a business and professional sense, we can all be outliers if we give whatever we are doing the time and effort. Success will follow and bless the effort.

What about culture? What about upbringing? Those can be overcome with the effort. Bill Gates was blessed (he would say “lucky”) with a good upbringing and good timing. Not everyone is, but everyone does have to make the effort and take the time.

For me, this rings true. My upbringing wasn’t one of privilege, but it was one of love and nurturing, though by no means perfect. My work sense after 20+ years with one company is, to be honest, a bit stilted. After so much time taking orders, breaking out of that mold and thinking for myself as I venture into new business opportunities will require a new mindset. However, I will say I relish the opportunity.

Carpe diem.

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