Book Review: Outliers – The Story of Success

by Ron Haynes

There are several myths about success:
1. Hard working entrepreneur pulls himself up by his bootstraps, works hard at an original idea for a few years, and becomes a hugely successful businessman. But there are many hard working entrepreneurs who never make it.
2. Born into the right family with the right connections and a fancy college education, an heir or heiress parlays their grandfather’s business into a huge multi-billion dollar company. But there are many people born into money that lose or squander it all.
3. Lucky all her life, she got all the right breaks, and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. But not everyone is lucky 100 percent of the time.

What if none of these were true? What if all of them were true? What if success was a unique combination of luck, skill, talent, common sense, family connections, family history, determination, perseverance, and more? What if there was no one single factor?

OutliersIn Outliers: The Story of Success one of the most delightful books I’ve read in a long, long time, author Malcolm Gladwell outlines the way people from The Beatles to the Hatfields and the McCoys to a struggling family in Jamaica become successful, or don’t become successful (in the case of the feud). More importantly, he argues that the complete story of success, the real underlying story, is much more complex and surprising than anyone wants to believe.

Bills in the computer lab

For example, Bill Gates might have just been another successful banker in Seattle if it hadn’t been for how close he lived to The University of Washington. In the University’s computer lab, young Bill Gates was able to spend thousands of hours on one of the most advanced computers in the country and was tutored by someone Gates describes as “knowing more about programming than anyone he’d ever met.”

Another Bill, Bill Joy (the TRUE father of the Internet) had a similar experience hundreds of miles away in Michigan. He was able, through a programming error, to spend thousands of hours on the University of Michigan’s computer system (the same type Gates learned on). Presented with the opportunity to learn everything he could, Joy gave up football, girls, cars, and the typical high school life to learn how computers worked and how to network them. Later he went on to write the architecture language for what would become the World Wide Web, write code Macintosh computers, and found Sun Microsystems. There, he wrote another computer language that you’re using today – Java. Bill Joy is called “the Edison of the Internet.”

These two people share something in common with another legend — The Beatles. Seven years before their explosion on the American stage, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been playing together in clubs in London and Hamburg, Germany. It was in Hamburg in particular where the former high school rock band really came together. According to John Lennon, they had never really played together for more than an hour or so, but in Hamburg, they would play for 8 hours straight! They played 7 days a week (maybe it was 8 days a week) until 12:30 in the morning, pushing themselves to ever dizzying heights of musical competence, even perfection.

10,000 hours

Can you guess what these three examples have in common? Self discipline. Commitment. Practice. Lots and lots of practice. TONS of practice. Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that the magic number at which someone really STARTS becoming proficient, even and expert is … ten thousand hours. That’s a one with four zeros after it. Ironically, Gates, Joy, and the Beatles, in subsequent interviews talking about how much time they spent on their passion, the number 10,000 hours of practice keeps coming up. Bill Joy has used that exact number in interviews when he discusses how much time he spent programming by his sophomore year at Berkley.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Practice makes perfect. No. Not necessarily. In one of the more unusual twists in the story of success, Gladwell examines when programming geniuses were born and finds that there was a bit of luck involved. Had Gates or Joy been born just 5 years later, they would have been too late on the scene to succeed in the computer revolution. Had they been born just five years sooner, they would probably have been too busy with a wife, kids, a job, and life in general to have spent those kinds of hours on computers. Success has more than just one factor.

And that’s how Gladwell draws the reader in. The factors of success are so varied, at one time infinitesimally minute, yet so incredibly important, that there isn’t just one set rule for success.

Gladwell pulls back the covers on the real life story of a genius and shows why being the smartest person in the room isn’t always the path to success. Perhaps “practical” knowledge DOES beat book smarts and he demonstrates why. In later chapters, he examines “the ethnic theory of plane crashes,” and discovers that where you were born could determine your propensity to be involved in a commercial jetliner crash. Where you’re born, indeed, where your grandparents were born, could have an influence on whether or not you become involved in a fatal family feud. And how does the cultivation of a rice paddy help Asian students develop the self discipline to get better math grades? Could it really be that the best hockey players are born between January and March?

I could go on and on singing the praises of this book. Well written, engaging, and intriguing, Gladwell gives us hope because success isn’t out of our reach because of our IQ or our family connections, or our personal history. The lives of the “outliers,” those whose measure of success is way beyond the norm, have been influenced by more than just who they were. Where they lived, where they were from, and what they had been up to had a huge influence on their success as well. The biggest component of success is the willingness to seize an opportunity when it presents itself and  put in the time and effort to immerse yourself in it.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

I give this book an unqualified BUY. This is one that I don’t plan to give away! If you cannot afford to purchase one, check with your local library to see if they would be willing to buy one or get one from another library through an inter-library loan

About the author

Ron Haynes has written 988 articles on The Wisdom Journal.

The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.