Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Subtitle: What Makes An Outlier?, Mini-Blog #1

Posted on May 6th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

According to Malcolm Gladwell, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Super achievers are successful because of their circumstances, their families, and their appetite for hard work (pg# 373). Throughout the book, he provides anecdotal and research-based evidence to support this claim. We'll get to read about the origins of the popular 10,000-Hour Rule and science behind it. We will examine the stories of some of the smartest, strongest, and most athletically gifted people and discuss what factors allowed those talents to blossom into success. In typical Malcolm Gladwell fashion, we will be encouraged to question our current opinions of what makes people exceptional.

I chose this book because I think that the question of what makes people stand out in their fields is a fascinating one and like many of you, I am also generally a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's work. As I alluded to before, I appreciate the way that Malcolm Gladwell often challenges the most popular societal beliefs (those of you who listen to his Revisionist History podcast know what I'm talking about). So, as we prepare to dive into Outliers lets approach the book with an open mind, prepared to be challenged at some point, and have a great discussion!

Discussion Question:

1. Do you agree with Gladwell's general claim about what makes people exceptional? In what ways does this differ from your viewpoint if at all?

Subtitle: Opportunity Beats Talent (When Talent Isn't Given Equal Opportunity), Mini-Blog #2

Intro, PART ONE: Chapters 1 & 2

Posted on May 10th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

I'm a firm believer that talent is evenly distributed in a given population, but opportunity is not. We all have different talents, but not everyone has the opportunity to find and develop theirs. Throughout the first couple chapters, we are given numerous examples of the relatively large role that opportunity plays in success and how we as a society contribute to who receives those chances and who doesn't.

In chapter one, we observe that more professional Canadian hockey players are born in the first few months of the year because the age-class hockey league cutoff is January 1st. Early on in adolescence, a child who is born closer to the cutoff (someone who turns 10 on Jan. 5th for example) has a developmental advantage by months over another who turns 10 later in the year and early on in childhood, those few months matter. The bigger, older kids who play better are then selected out for the top teams and best coaching while the smaller, younger kids who may be just as talented, but needed more time to develop, miss out and are prematurely relegated to lesser leagues.

In chapter two, we learn the 10,000-hour rule* which suggests that you need 10,000 hours of practice at a given task to master it. People like Bill Gates, The Beatles, and Bill Joy were all very talented at their crafts, but a large part of what allowed them to become great was the opportunity they had to practice in ways that others weren't afforded. In a culture that creates arbitrary age cutoffs for school and sport early in development and favors those who are already privileged for the best opportunities, we can begin to see the ways that our societal structure plays a role in determining who is successful—and some of the ways we can change that.

*The 10,000 hour figure has since been debunked but the sentiment that people who become outliers, especially at a young age, were able to do so because they spent more hours in deliberate practice than their peers still stands.

Discussion Questions

1. These first few chapters identify talent, preparation, and opportunity as keys to becoming an outlier. In order of importance, how would you rank these factors? Does it vary depending on the field of play?

2. In what ways can we create opportunities in the running community so that everyone has the chance to realize their talent?

Subtitle: Opportunity Beats Intellect (In A Room of Clever People), Mini-blog #3

PART ONE: Chapters 3-5

Posted on May 17th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

In the last few chapters of PART ONE of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell we examine the exceptionality of geniuses. Through anecdotes from the stories of people like Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer as well evidence from studies of IQ in law school students and the infamous longitudinal study of Lewis Terman's gifted children (Termites as he called them), these chapters conclude that general intelligence (as measured by IQ score) is FAR less important than cultural upbringing and sheer luck when it comes to success. In other words, genius alone isn't enough to thrive in this world if you haven't been properly prepared by your community and presented with the right opportunities to use it.

Langan has an IQ of 195 (for reference, Einstein's was 150), but lacked the preparation to navigate the world and, as he admits towards the end of chapter 4, feels that he hasn't made the most of his one-in-a-million mind. Oppenheimer on the other hand possessed the social savvy to navigate the world and was able to talk his way into leading the Manhattan Project despite little experience and a known attempted murder. Terman's study dives deeper into this opportunity gap as he tracks his 'Termites' through adulthood and notices that the ones who became most successful were simply the ones who were taught by their families to present their best face to the world. The stories of Langan, Openheimer, and the varying success of the 'Termites' are more complex than the presence or lack of social savvy, as is discussed more in depth in the book. However, I bring this point out to highlight the fact that genius is just a talent and talent alone is not enough to be successful. Far more important are the opportunities we are presented with and those we create as a community. Rather than viewing talent as the most important feature, it's time we consider the outsized impact a community can have on who and how many people succeed.

Discussion Question:

1. The psychologist Barry Schwartz once proposed that elite schools give up their complex admissions process and simply hold a lottery for everyone above their determined threshold intelligence level (pg#103). After all, we've learned through these chapters that beyond a certain point (approximately 10-20 points above average IQ), there is no longer a correlation between intelligence and success. Given that fact amongst the other things we learned about intelligence over the last few chapters, do you think this type of system could work? Would it be fair?

Subtitle: Cultural Legacy and the Negative Outlier, Mini-blog #4

PART TWO: Chapters 6 & 7

Posted on May 24th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

Throughout most of the book, we have spent time looking at how the environments we grow up in—our early development through family life, the time period we were born into, our geographic location—provide very specific advantages and create opportunities to become successful when multiple factors coincide. However, in these first two chapters of PART TWO, we observe how facets of our cultural language and upbringing can create negative outliers, through the examination of plane crashes.

Put plainly, Gladwell argues here that flight crews from high power distance cultures are more likely to crash a plane than those from lower power distance cultures. Power distance is a measure of a culture's reverence for hierarchy. High power distance cultures have greater respect for hierarchies and as a result, subordinates are less likely to challenge their superiors. When it comes to flying a plane, this means that in high power distance cultures, the first mate and flight engineer are less likely to challenge the judgement of the captain even if the plane is about to crash. Gladwell is careful not to suggest that having a high power distance in a given culture is right or wrong, he simply recognizes that in this very specific scenario, it has been shown to be a barrier to safe piloting of a plane. Though the research presented strongly supports this conclusion, to suggest that the habits of a given culture with regards to communication within a flight crew is a primary cause of plane crashes feels like a slippery slope, especially when most of the high power distance cultures in question are made up of people of color.

Towards the end of chapter 7, Gladwell asks "Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we're from—and when we ignore that fact, planes crash." (pg# 269). In my opinion, the reason this is so difficult is because in the United States and in this world, there is a history of racism, oppression, and lack of representation that colors the context of this kind of conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of a given culture. The overall point that recognizing the ways that our cultural history impacts the way we do things and acting on that knowledge by increasing our willingness to learn from other cultures has powerful implications for what we as a society are capable of accomplishing is certainly an important one. I just hope that we can execute this in ways that do more good than harm.

Discussion Question:

1. In what ways can we (and have we already) embrace cultures different from our own within the running community to make it a better place for all?

Subtitle: All for One and One for All

PART TWO: Chapters 8, 9, & Epilogue

Posted May 31st , 2022

By Olivia Baker

Throughout Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, we've come to learn about many of the things that have made people successful and interestingly enough many of those things are out of the direct control of the individual. Yes, hard work and talent matter, but this book has shown that it is not simply the best and the brightest who succeed. Far more important than that are the opportunities we are given, some created by our own deliberate hard work, but most created by the contributions of many different people and circumstances that are out of our direct control.

Some may find it discouraging to discover all of the factors beyond our control that play a role in becoming an outlier. After all, while we can always work harder, we can't change our birth month or cultural legacy or determine when opportunity will just fall into our laps. However, the beauty in this is that we have also seen how acknowledging both the arbitrary factors (PART ONE) and learning from our different cultural legacies (PART TWO) can allow societies to create more of those life changing opportunities for everyone.

We individually may play smaller roles in our own success than we'd like to think, but we as a society have the ability to create greater success for everyone. As Gladwell puts it, "To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all." (pg#324).

My Takeaway: If everyone lives for their own success, few actually succeed. However, when we all come together as a society and treat success like the group project that it is, we can create a better world for everyone. Easier said than done, but reading this book encourages me that there are practical ways that we can, in fact, do this.

Discussion Questions:

1. Revisiting Gladwell's initial claim that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman, are you now convinced that he is right about this? Do you believe his claim that a person's circumstances matter more than their individual hard work and talent in determining whether or not they become an outlier?

2. When you think of outliers in your life or that you know of, does this book change your opinion of what makes them an outlier? If so, in what ways?

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