Book review: Outliers

malcolm gladwell speaking at pop!tech

Love him (I do) or hate him (many do), what most people find most vexing about Malcolm Gladwell's books are the conclusions he draws in them.

Connecting a to b to c and coming up with 9. Telling story after fascinating story only to sum them up hastily with a big, fat WTF? Because, as others have pointed out, the same interesting and facile mind that skitters across the surface from topic to interesting topic can't possibly dig deep into any one of them, much less be a schooled expert who has been soaking in the stuff since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, statistics at her fingertips and facility with fusing them into insights which are both truly new and truly supportable.* Because hey, he may be quicker and a better wordsmith, but he gets the same daily ration of 24 hours as the rest of us mere mortals.

So if the news isn't so newsy and the conclusions a bit iffy, why read Gladwell? Aren't those books over there in the business section, away from the "fun" sections, meant to edumacate ourselves with?

I say read Gladwell for two reasons. First, because he's ridiculously readable. Eminently readable. Deliciously, dazzlingly readable. You can devour his books in a sitting or two, smacking your lips all the way, because they're loaded to the gills with well-told, interesting stories. Avoid accepting anything as gospel (gospels very much included) and you can enjoy a whole lot more of everything, especially most business books.

The other reason to read Gladwell is because within the wonderfully-told stories are many, many useful nuggets you can take with you and muse on later. I may or may not buy into the broken windows theory of crime prevention, but I like that it stops me in my tracks and makes me wonder, "Well, what of this?" I like that it starts a conversation in my head.

Similarly, in Outliers, one particular exchange stuck in my head. It's a conversation between a Korean employee and his higher-up, and it's soaked in the kind of rich subtext that kept Pinter in business. I won't quote the dialogue here (too lazy to type, plus that copyright thing), but here's the salient point: what looks on the (Western, non-Korean) surface to be one thing is, in the context of the speakers' native land, something entirely different.** And, well, that makes me think quite a bit about my own, supposably rock-solid communicationz skillz, and how I should maybe-possibly watch out for the assuming and get better at the communicationz-ing.

Do not read Outliers, then, to discover the secret of success. You already know it: be lucky, be good, and work hard. Gladwell seems to be pointing to luck as the x factor, which right there is kind of a no-duh conclusion, but he is also saying (and says he's saying, so we're clear) that each of us can factor into one another's success. Done and done.***

Read it to find the stories that will inspire you to do or think the next good thing in your life.

Done. And done...


*Via Gladwell's wikipedia entry, this NYT piece by Steven Pinker and this brutally cold takedown by Maureen Track for The Nation.

**The cultural anthropologists call the detangling of codes like this unpacking, which I love. My favorite unpacking story ever was related by Grant McCracken on his blog, which has been on my "read first" list for years, and which you should subscribe to right now. And if you're in business, you should also buy his latest book, Chief Culture Officer, which I'll review here at some point in the next couple of months. Go! Go!

***For example, you are my success and (hopefully), I am yours. Plus, if you click on one of these links, I get a nickel or something, which is helpful right now, I won't lie.