Sunday, April 5, 2009
Book Review: Outliers by Malcom Gladwell
Here is a book review I wrote for my Leadership class. Obviously, since I wrote it for class it's not exactly written toward my blog audience (whatever that means). In light of that, I will also add some additional blog thoughts at its conclusion...
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown Co.
Malcolm Gladwell is a very successful writer. He has authored two #1 international bestsellers and currently works as a staff writer for The New Yorker. He is a success story. I think this gives him a certain level of credibility as he embarks on an exploration of some of the world’s greatest success stories in his latest work, Outliers.
We normally think about successful people as intelligent and ambitious, people who were willing to lead by innovation and persistence. We read about the keys to successful leadership, strategies for going from “good to great,” and studies on the best leaders and how they do what they do. But Gladwell’s voice in the conversation on leadership wants to say that maybe things, as complex as they may seem, are infinitely more complex than we could have ever imagined. Perhaps, not only is success a product of incredibly hard work and once-in-a-generation intelligence or gifting, but also a whole host of extenuating circumstances and extraordinary opportunities. His argument essentially states that those who exceed all others in success – outliers – are those who have been given incredibly rare opportunity and extremely unique legacy.
Outliers tells the stories of some of the technology and software industry’s pioneers, of the most wildly successful attorneys of our time, of all-star Canadian hockey players, of airlines that have been saved from financial ruin overnight, and of multi-racial Jamaican immigrants who found a way to rise above their circumstances against all odds. He has found, in researching a vast array of exceedingly successful people and organizations, that the things most of these have in common is opportunity and legacy.
The theory of opportunity deals with advantages gained due to demographics such as socio-economic class, place in history, even birth-date (Did you know that being born in January means you'll likely be a better hockey player than your friends born in April? ...at least if you're Canadian, that is..). Gladwell insists that perhaps even more important than intelligence or “natural” leadership ability, are the millions of variables surrounding a person’s life, including where they grew up, when they were born, or what their parents did for a living. All of these aspects contribute to unique opportunities for a person’s personality and skill-set to be formed for just the right moment in history. He also provides support for a theory that to truly become an expert at anything, one must have spent at least 10,000 hours in practicing that particular skill, further solidifying his place in the “Nurture” camp of the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate.
To add to his theory on opportunity, Gladwell also explores the nuances of what he calls “legacy.” His focus with this concept is the set of advantages and disadvantages that are inherently passed down from a person’s parents and native culture, things such as communication style, entitlement, social skills, work ethic, and even dumb luck. Ultimately, Gladwell suggests that if we could understand better what kind of advantages we may be giving certain members of society, and withholding from others, more folks would have a shot at becoming the leaders, innovators, and thinkers that could take society beyond what we might even consider possible.
This book has a great amount of application to a discussion on leadership. It would tend to suggest that leaders can be made, but that perhaps they could be born into circumstances that would make it more difficult to fully achieve their potential. This says a lot about how we should approach leadership development in students: creating opportunities and leaving a legacy are incredibly important if we want our students to display the same successful characteristics as the “outliers” of society, those who are uniquely equipped to lead change.
This book made me realize how important it is to give people an opportunity to realize their potential. It also made me realize how much of who I am is a product of who a whole lot of other people are (e.g. parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, classmates, teammates, co-workers, even strangers) and the events that happen to be occurring during my lifetime.
For the Christian, Outliers offers a study in the sovereignty of God over all the details of our lives. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father." God is all over the details of my life. He is making me into who He would have me be all the time. Even more still, the Holy Spirit is refining me through the current sufferings and stumblings I happen to be encountering.
And finally, I need to be aware of the impact I can have on another's life. Regardless of what I try to do, I have effects on people all the time without ever intending it. So the real question, since I have little control on whether I affect others, is how will I continue to submit myself to God's will that I love others and set an example in godliness and righteousness to them so that the impact I have will utimately glorify Him?
Follow me as I follow Christ.