Malcolm Gladwell's best selling book Outliers is masterfully written, thought provoking, and an entertaining read.
It also offers bad advice based on dubious conclusions.
Relying mainly on anecdotal evidence, Gladwell sets out to convince us that success is not just the result of intelligence, ambition and hard work. The surprising truth, according to Gladwell, is that success actually has more to do with the opportunities provided by one's family, local community, and society-at-large.
Gladwell revisits the familiar "nature versus nurture" debate and comes down squarely on the side of nurture. Outliers is a cleverly repackaged version of the "It's not what you know but who you know" message.
What makes this book exceptional is Gladwell's argument that even ambition and hard work are more the product of upbringing than some unexplainable inner drive. And I will grant there is some truth to what he says. But I'm not ready to abandon the often overriding influence of individual initiative.
The problem with anecdotes is that it's easy to pick the ones that support your position and ignore the ones that don't. Gladwell tells us that a key success factor in professional hockey, soccer and baseball is birth date. He explains that cutoff birth dates in each age group favor the oldest kids. For example, in Canada the cutoff date for junior hockey is January 1, which means that a kid who just turned ten competes with kids who won't turn ten for another 10, 11, or 12 months. He offers as proof the fact that 17 out of 25 players on the Medicine Hat Tigers' roster were born in January, February, March or April.
I won't dispute Gladwell's conclusion that success in Canadian hockey is skewed by birth date. But towards the end of the book he slips in this little gem "If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars." Sorry, but that does not follow. A second hockey league might reduce the skew, but it would not necessarily double (or even increase) the demand for professional hockey players.
Gladwell suggests that success in any field requires about 10,000 hours of work. But it's not just about working hard. Bill Gates had access to a computer terminal at the tender age of 13 and that allowed him to acquire 10,000 hours of programming experience. Likewise, the Beatles obtained a gig in Hamburg, Germany which gave them 10,000 hours of experience performing live. It's all about the opportunity, you see.
I'm not sure Gladwell's math is accurate, but that's not the issue. Bill Gates succeeded as a businessman--not as a programmer. The Beatles got the gig in Hamburg because they were good from the start and were willing to invest long hours playing in seedy clubs.
There is one distinction that seems to escape Gladwell entirely: the distinction between modest success and extraordinary success. Certainly the factors discussed by Gladwell contribute to modest success. Children raised with high expectations will generally do better than those raised with low expectations. But extraordinary success often transcends factors such as birth date, economic class, ethnic group, and education. To wit, there is no place in Gladwell's scheme for someone like Michael Faraday, who became one of the greatest scientists in history despite an impoverished childhood and limited education.
Gladwell tells us that successful people really aren't outliers at all. They are the beneficiaries of opportunities provided to them by others. But he cherry-picks his examples. I can cherry-pick many more counterexamples.