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Gladwell’s Outliers

Gladwell sets upon a very interesting mission. He tries to look at success with a more balanced sociological perspective. The general view on success is that the successful individual has some particular quality that makes him so good at what he does, which is symbolic. “Outliers” on the other hand, tries to look at how the social and cultural climate under which the person grew up influenced his or her success, which is a functionalistic view. Gladwell states early on in the book that we perceive success to be a function of that person’s talent, work and effort.

He says that this view is not entirely true. His thesis is that there are more concrete external factors to a person’s success than we generally credit. To credit all of a person’s success to him alone is improper. Gladwell goes on to prove this point with anecdotes, case studies and statistics. The first chapter deals with the ‘Matthew Effect”, named after Matthew 25:29. Taking statistics that show that most of the top Canadian hockey players were born in the first three months of the year, he plunges into why. The cutoff date is December 31st which gives a head start to those born earlier in any year.

Better players are given more clothes, get selected to better teams and face better competition – a snowball effect. This chapter highlights that timing is of essence in success. The second chapter deals with the “10,000 Hours Rule”. Gladwell goes on to show how The Beatles played 10,000 hours at Hamburg before they became popular. How Bill Gates and Bill Joy worked 10,000 hours on computers before they started their companies. Then he digresses to how many successful people are clustered around a certain event.

A lot of the richest people around the industrial revolution, a lot of software entrepreneurs were born around 1955. The availability of opportunity and practice is what counts more than talent, is what this chapter tries to prove. The next two chapters are titled “The Trouble with Geniuses I and II”. They deal mainly with anecdotes. Examples of children arranging bricks and two people with different family backgrounds goes to prove that intelligence as measured by IQ tests alone do not account for factors such as creativity and experimentation and are not indicators of potential success.

Also, he reasons that if you come from a well to do family, you have more opportunity to be successful. “The Three Lessons of Joe Flom” deals with points such as having the right culture, belonging to the right demographic and having the right family history to show that these are crucial factors to succeed in any chosen profession. The “Harlan, Kentucky” chapter goes to show how the dispositions of ancestors might be a more crucial thing than usually thought. It’s a long and drawn out chapter that proves a very simple point.

“The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” is one of the more researched and well argued chapters in the book. The author shows that the culture of the pilots determines how they would react to situations that lead to crashes and this might actually be the reason for crashes. The chapter “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” explore how the same qualities that help in cultivating rice, help in mathematics, and other such cultural and linguistic factors that have made Asian children far more naturally talented in mathematics. “Marita’s Bargain” deals with the family’s social background and how that influences the success of a child.

Gladwell shows for instance that children attending private schools are actually smarter not because of how they are taught, but because of how they spend their free time. The “Epilogue” concerns itself with Gladwell’s story and how he is a product of many factors. This chapter is quite repetitive of the points mentioned before in the book. It can be stated that the general view about success is symbolic. We assume that a person’s success is solely dependent on how he views the world and himself and goes about doing what he does with his own impressions.

The general view attributes success to two or three major factors such as ‘talent’, ‘work’ and ‘luck’. Gladwell opines that “Outliers” would change that perspective and from his interviews and how he describes the book, we may come under the impression that his idea about success is a more functionalist one. On the outside, that statement might seem to be true. Gladwell analyses a host of factors such as time of birth, family culture, opportunity, family background, social culture, practice and even ancestry. “Outliers” is a diversification of factors explaining success, if you will, but not a functionalistic view.

Gladwell says almost nothing very original in the book. It is a common observation that there are lots of factors affecting success of an individual, but there are some that are more important than the others. In “Outliers” Gladwell takes a general notion and splits it into details. He explores specific factors and statistics, anecdotes and research all to come up with a host of smaller and at times uncontrollable factors. In that way alone, it may be said that the book presents a functionalistic view. Many factors seem to control an individual’s success. Let us look at it this way.

The book takes “luck” and presents different forms of it. The recurring theme is background of an individual. The term outlier stands for something far out of its normal range. By using that term as the title, Gladwell reinforces the idea that success is something out of normal and requires certain extra things to achieve it. The author takes a statistic and then comes up with some thesis to explain how that particular factor may have worked. The best example is the anecdote of Korean culture causing co-pilots to be more submissive to the pilots and therefore creating situations leading to air crashes.

It is true that Korean culture has emphasis on submission to superiors and it is true that Korean airlines were crashing a lot. What might not be true is the story Gladwell states of co-pilots being submissive to pilot in scenarios they shouldn’t be, and therefore causing crashes. The author’s ability to make a connection between a social climate and air crashes shows how he views the world. He can take something that is true of a large picture, take something that is true of a smaller picture and somehow show that the small picture is indeed a part of the large picture. Gladwell writing the book itself is an example of symbolic sociology.

His opinions, how he views success, may not be focused on the major factors that influence success. It is ironical then that his opinions of his book almost claim that “Outliers” proves a functionalistic view of individual success. The truth is that it does not. It explores details that are usually never explored, yes. It takes many specific instances and garlands them into an interesting narrative – a very symbolic act, yes. It does not however, as the author thinks, prove a functionalistic viewpoint of success. However, it does give a more balanced sociological view, neither symbolic nor functionalistic, but a very interesting mix of both.

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