Book review: Outliers

This is a cross-post from my other blog – A day in the circus – with some changes.

I first heard the word Outlier in the context of statistics. Wikipedia defines it thus

In statistics, an outlier is an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data. Grubbs defined an outlier as: An outlying observation, or outlier, is one that appears to deviate markedly from other members of the sample in which it occurs.

The book applies this word in the context of achievers. It defines an Outlier as one among us who has achieved much in his sphere of work – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, James Gosling, Sachin Tendulkar, and so on. In short, this means guys who are generally acknowledged as super-achievers. While it is well documented how these super-achievers achieved so much success – sheer hard work, a bit of luck, focus, sacrifice, commitment, and so on – the book digs deeper and tries to find patterns from the life stories of these successes. And, these patterns that the book digs out are surprising.

  • Would a date of birth decide the difference between super achievers and an also-ran? According to the book it does and it already has.
  • Would centuries’ old cultural legacies shape the likelihood of one’s future success or failure? Yes, it does.
  • If practise makes one perfect then is there a magic figure, in hours, to the amount of practise needed for amazing success? You bet.
  • Does genius alone guarantee success? No.
  • Does class and income decide future success? Yes, sort of.

The book seeks to break the myth that success is a function of genius, hard-work, making the most of given opportunities, and other such factors alone. It says that these factors need to also be supported by others like when, where and the period in history when one was born, the kind of parenting that one had as a child, the hours of practise one had in the field one would be eventually famous in, the way that genius is developed, the way cultural legacies are understood and used, the value placed on hard work, and so on. These other factors are then backed up with data and examples from a cross-section of professions, cultures, classes, history and so on.

There are poignant examples of how lot many people could not harness their talents to success just because there were born at the wrong time. An example of a promising Jewish lawyer who could not capitalize on the early promise due to the second world war is given. Examples of all those talents in Canadian ice-hockey who could not come up in the system just because they are not born in the youngest group of their batch. There is a narrative about the person with the best IQ in the world who is not a world-renowned scientist but one who just lives in an isolated farm somewhere in the US Midwest. However what was most poignant and revealing was the observations on how plane crashes of certain airlines relates to the cultural legacies of social hierarchy and attitudes of those in power in those countries’ societies.

Along with this there are also examples of how some people were set up for success by just being born at the right time and place, having a natural genius for some talent, being given serendipitous opportunities to practise that talent for long enough time and crucially when that talent is not much in demand yet, chance happenings, having parents with the right interest (and connections) and ancestors with the right set of values and culture, and finally being primed up and all ready when that talent is finally in demand. The success of Bill Gates, the Beatles and James Gosling are examples of these. That is not to say that their innate talent and genius had nothing to do with their success but to imply that all the factors mentioned above supported their innate genius in becoming successful at whatever it is that they loved doing. Also, it is shown how the success of Jewish lawyers and clothiers in the US was directly related to their cultural legacy in general and how their history set them up for success in these professions. The same reason correlates how the farming practices of the Chinese farmers from one particular region set them up for future academic success particularly in Mathematics.

In fact, reading all that I was not surprised to now understand the success of Indian students in academics in particular and Indians in general. Also sadly, it made sense to me about why the present problems facing India might be a function of these same cultural legacies. That is not say that just these factors alone are responsible and that I now have complete knowledge about what afflicts or helps India, for understanding anything Indian is far more complicated than just reading a book, but just that I now have a few other perspectives to also see things from.

My key takeaway from this book was that by providing enough opportunities and practise we can set up more and more kids for future success. By ensuring that they get 10000+ hours of practise in their area of interest we can actually set them up for perfection, or something close to that, and success. By choosing their skills wisely today we can set them up for success tomorrow by ensuring that they get that many hours of practise and be ready when that skill gathers demand. By being aware of our cultural legacies we will be cautious of the risks in the journey. And lastly, by simply being interested in the lives of our children and their success we can actually set them up for success.

To put the above para in other words, there is simply no shortcut to success other than sheer hard work, careful preparation, making use of whatever opportunities comes by the door and many other factors beyond our direct control. In spite of all this success is not guaranteed but without any or all of these it is not guaranteed anyway. So where this book scores over many other self-help books (Note: Outliers is not a self-help book) that guarantee success is that it lays a broad template to put oneself (or one’s kids) in the path of future success and makes clear the risks in this rather long and winding path,

For an Aglist, there are some nuggets that talk about communication and teamwork which I felt were relevant in an Agile context too. There are some stories in the book where it shown how communication and teamwork was all that helped in successfully handling a crisis. I am talking about the story of how an alert captain of a flight handled a medical emergency mid-flight. Also, it is shown how gaps in communication could be fatal. It is clearly stated how cultural misunderstanding leads to communication gaps and vital messages falling through them. In this new age of distributed teams and mix of cultures within the teams these lessons are truly important. I will try to explore this separately in another post.

All in all, some refreshing perspectives from a good book. Do read when you find time.

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