Book Review: Outliers

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They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky–but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

As much as I enjoyed my seminar readings (all Victorian detective fiction), it felt lovely to be returning to readings of my own choosing. The first book I decided to tackle was this one. I’d previously read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and BlinkAlthough I enjoyed them immensely, I didn’t think either book was mind-blowing, and that the arguments that Gladwell presents should be taken with a grain of salt. I found that the case studies used tended to be very specific, and sometimes the conclusions drawn seemed too generalized or far-fetched. Still, I enjoyed the books because they present sociological studies in an accessible manner. And you can’t deny that Gladwell is an engaging writer.

This pretty much sums up how I feel about Outliers. In this book, Gladwell takes apart the root of success, using examples like Bill Gates, the Beatles, and even explaining why Asians are good at math. To be honest, the conclusions that are drawn from these examples aren’t subversive by any means. Gladwell argues that people are successful due to a combination of factors, including hard work, luck, environment, culture, and opportunity. This, to me, wasn’t a revolutionary idea.

There were a few examples in the book, though, that struck a chord with me. Gladwell refers to Korean Air’s history of fatal accidents, and how the airline managed to turn that around. According to Outliers, Korean culture’s strict guidelines about respecting those in a position of seniority influenced flight crew to not disagree with the captain, even if they perceived that they were in a dangerous situation. After acknowledging their mistakes, Korean Air hired an outside expert, who forced Korean Air’s crew to learn and communicate in English. The Korean language dictates specific, respectful ways to speak to a superior, so the mandatory communication in English allowed younger and less experienced staff to speak up and contribute to a safe environment that they wouldn’t have been able to do in their native language.

I personally loved this example because it shows how an airline managed to completely turn itself around, even despite being perceived as unsafe, which is possibly the worst quality an airline could have. As a Korean woman raised in North America, though, I immediately understood how much importance Korean culture places in respecting elders. It’s an aspect of my culture that I have sometimes found frustrating in its conservatism, but also feel a deep respect for. It was refreshing to read about the history of a company that decided to incorporate Western values, without overly diluting its culture.

The epilogue of Outliers is also undeniably powerful. Gladwell discusses his family history: how his great-great-great-grandmother was a slave and how his mother happened to have the right opportunities to get an education and eventually leave Jamaica. At first, I was wowed by how a successful, influential writer like Gladwell could emerge from such humble origins, but then I thought back on my own family history. My grandmother was born in North Korea, in a time when the peninsula was yet undivided, and even my parents grew up without the same educational or professional opportunities that I did. Like Gladwell, I am a product of my culture, my opportunities, luck, and the amount of work I’ve put into my success. With his personal history, Gladwell ends the book on a powerful note, and invites the reader to consider how they’ve reached their own success. Or, at least, that’s what I found myself doing at the end…

YES OR NO?: YES. Outliers is an interesting read, despite its rather obvious thesis. The case studies that Gladwell explores are thought-provoking, and the writing style is engaging.

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