Non-fiction isn’t really my thing, if that makes sense. It’s not that the non-fiction works that I have read weren’t enjoyable. Simply that my first instinct is to pick up a novel.
So when a friend bought ‘Outliers’ for me, I was initially unsure. The subtitle, ‘The Story of Success’, initially brought to mind those ‘How to be successful’, confidence booster style books. However, my friend had clearly enjoyed it and I trust her recommendations completely so it went to the top of my ‘to be read list’.
Gosh, were my first impressions (based on the title and subtitle) wrong.
As the introduction, The Roseto Mystery, both explains and demonstrates, Gladwell aims to explore why ‘outliers’ – individuals or communities who stand out from the crowd in a certain time or place (anomalies, if you will) – occur. He takes examples from a variety of times and locations to understand what circumstances enabled remarkable achievements of individuals, companies, or communities.
The concept really is fascinating. Be it elite hockey players, software pioneers, educational systems, sought-after lawyers, Gladwell shows that alongside the intelligence and dedicated hard work of individuals, outliers often come to exist as a result of some exceptionally random circumstances. Opportunities arise that, once noted and taken, give those people the chance to develop their skills and motivations, and so achieve these extraordinary things.
Birthdates; cultural histories and legacies of geographical locations; racial and ethnic relations at given moments in time and place; personal, national or global economic events; so many seemingly trivial (and often unknown) things can build up to produce momentous results.
Gladwell’s style of writing I found to be really comprehensible and effective. It’s like he’s sitting next to you, explaining these things in person. He’s a magnificent story-teller. That’s essentially what ‘Outliers’ is: a collection of stories, though these are real events that are being analysed and understood anew. Gladwell details the context and the minutiae of each example so well that it was as though (as happens when I read fiction), I was being pulled into that world. It reminded me how much skill is involved in finding the right tone and approach in writing so tjat the reader remains engaged.
“He is the best kind of writer – the kind who makes you feel like you’re a genius, rather than he’s a genius.” – The Times
This quote used on the blurb is so true. I learned so much from reading this book. Each case study either referred back to previous examples or was supported by others in briefer detail (don’t worry, Gladwell’s writing style ensures that this never feels like an overload of information). ‘Outliers’ has opened my eyes to how society constructs narratives of success. There’s such a tendency to create almost sickeningly sweet rags-to-riches stories that suggest that extraordinary people ‘appear’ out of nowhere. Gladwell doesn’t take anything away from the remarkable achievements, talents or hard work of the people he discusses. What he does is try to give a broader picture, showing how certain circumstances aligned so that those individuals harnessed their talents at the correct historical moment and had the vision to use them in ways that achieved extraordinary things.
Gladwell encourages us to imagine how different it might be if those opportunities had been given to someone else or had not happened at all. Some case studies show the importance of changing attitudes and making moves away from aspects of cultural legacies. In showing how much can be understood from ‘outlier’ cases, Gladwell argues for broadening those opportunities for as many people as possible. He shows how much greater our world and our achievements might be if more people had the same opportunities as these ‘outlier’ cases to use their personal abilities.
I’m definitely going to add Gladwell’s other works to my ‘to be read’ list now and I’m going to try to read more non-fiction too.
This book is definitely worth a read. It’s interesting, it’s well structured and written, and there are great ‘personal’ touches too that really enhance the work. Enjoy!