of books by Malcolm Gladwell

MALCOM GLADWELL (1963 - ) writes for The New Yorker Magazine. He is interested in how we can explain the extra-ordinary. Read Gladwell's blog.

by Malcom Gladwell
Little, Brown, 2008

This book about "outliers" addresses the phenomenon of highly successful people and discusses our understanding of what it means to be a genius, a top player, an outstanding person. When we relate success with individual traits, we implicitly refer to some mysterious ability or quality, today most commonly referred to as genetics. We are born a genius. While it is true that we are born with certain abilities, what we can make of them depends not just on us, but on our immediate environment - family, god, country, and their inevitable societal rules.

Gladwell makes another important point; that while lacking an ability may not lead to success, to be the smartest not necessarily makes you the most successful. To be five percent smarter than a fellow genius does not make you five percent more successful - instead, the circumstances rule. Gladwell introduces the idea of threshold meaning that above a certain level of ability, success is as much a matter of being at the right place at the right time as it is to be smart enough for the job.

These are important observations that can be used to reflect on our education system. Geniality is all around us, but with no one around to nurture it, it will flounder and wilt. In addition, our societal calendars are more influential than we think, creating advantages and disadvantages in education that have little to do with ability, but everything with chance and mentoring.

One of the more powerful narrative is the ten thousand hour rule, the observation that even truly gifted individuals still have to work hard to be masters of their domain. Practice, in other words, is key to success. The idea of practice has also been explored by Michael Oakeshott calling it practical knowledge, as opposed to technical knowledge. Who hasn't had the experience of starting something new with a manual, only to realize that our first attempts to creating something are stiff and clumsy, while hours of practice will train our brain and hands to become good at what we are doing: writing, typing, cooking, driving, networking, singing and so on.

December 19, 2008 /  © 2008 Lukas K. Buehler / go back to Book Review Home