Recommendation: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

First recommendation of the month, and I am VERY late to the party on the Malcolm Gladwell train. Who has been everyone’s favourite non-fiction author for maybe a decade now.

I was recommended Outliers: The Story of Success by my brother, and based purely on the title I already hated it.

I kind of hated it when it started, because it seemed to be a celebration of the “genius individual”. And then it did a 180 degree pivot, and spent the rest of the book dismantling the idea that celebrated individuals become celebrated because they are exceptional outliers with innate talent. It focuses instead on the systemic privileges that got them there.

So there’s the fascinating history of how much computer programming Bill Gates was lucky enough to when he was at school (spoiler: more than even professors teaching computer programming at the time). There’s the story of how the Beatles got so much more practice playing live than their contemporaries because they played all day and all night for weeks on end in strip clubs in Hamburg. This is the book that went on to popularise the theory of 10,000 hours… that all the people who are massively successful have had at least 10,000 hours practice at their chosen field.

Current Favourite Thing:
There’s one chapter which kind of rocked my world, and which has gone on to be (in?)famous, comparing Christopher Langan, a TV quiz ‘genius’ with an IQ of 195 with J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the project to build the first successful atomic bomb. Both showed great intellectual promise at an early age. But Langan was from a working class background, and didn’t learn how work the system. He was kicked out of college because his mother didn’t fill in the paperwork properly. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, was caught trying to murder his college tutor. Literally trying to murder him. But he was from an upper-middle class background, and he was able to argue his case to the university authorities. He was let off with a warning.

The chapter then details a study done by US Sociologist Annette Lareau about different styles of parenting, that revealed an unexpected result. Lareau was expecting to find all sorts of different parenting styles, but after following 12 test study families around she found it broke down fairly neatly into class: the upper/middle class approach, and the working class approach. The latter approach is to give children emotional support, but to essentially let them develop by themselves. The other approach Lareau called ‘concerted cultivation’. And learning about this, and the process of deliberately teaching children entitlement because it is an effective strategy (challenge authority, speak up for yourself, ALWAYS request that the system be changed to suit your needs), was a huge lightbulb moment for me.

It explained so much of the environment I grew up in (minor aristocracy in North Oxford), and why I felt, and continue to feel, utterly alienated from it (even though it has obviously defined me in many ways). We were expected to be… a little rude. Always. Extremely confident. Demanding to the point of being unreasonable (but just short of it). And a little rude, to show that we weren’t afraid, and we were prepared to make trouble. “Sorry, can I take your name please? I’d like to talk to the manager…”

It’s an astonishing recipe for success if you choose to take it.

But it’s also, I believe, a barrier to producing anything of worth to society. Not an impassible barrier, but a barrier nonetheless. Because it makes you a dick.

And it means people don’t trust you. They might be impressed by you, and respect you, and even fear you, but they won’t communicate honestly with you. And that means you can’t collaborate in a meaningful way.

That said, you’ll be in a position to claim all of the credit for work done by many people who lack your confidence and your connections. You can use their ideas, their assistance, their groundwork, and you can claim it all as your own. So maybe that doesn’t matter.

Leave a Reply