Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

Just finished reading (actually listening) to Outliers. While I enjoyed the book and found the stories throughout to be engaging, I am left with the same feeling I almost always have after reading a popular book trying to explain some complicated historical or sociological phenomenon (e.g. Guns, Germs, and Steel). This feeling is somewhere along the lines of “yeah, maybe, but…”

The problem with the book and so many others like it is that it is making a broad and sweeping statement based on a handful of cherry picked anecdotes. The primary thesis of the book is that extreme success is not due to some extraordinary talent that is inherent to the successful person, but rather to the circumstances and environment in which said successful person finds him or herself in. In other words, the reason outliers are outliers is because their environment was an outlier, rather than because they themselves are outliers. To show this the book proceeds through a litany of successful individuals and then points out how many lucky breaks they got. For example, many of computing’s tycoons (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc) were born within a span of a few short years such that by the time they were 20 or 21, they were perfectly aged to take advantage of the personal computer revolution. Fine, but correlation does not imply causation. Maybe they happened to be extraordinarily entrepreneurial individuals, and if computers weren’t about to take the world by storm, they would have found something else. I.e. looking back at things, it appears that they succeeded because computing was about to take off at the right time, but maybe they are just intrinsically entrepreneurial, and were ready to jump on whatever field was about to take off during their early 20s. It’s not clear which causes what.

The fundamental problem with the book’s reasoning is that it is retrospective. You can always make up stories after the fact. The only real way to test this type of hypothesis is to do a forward experiment, but of course that is near impossible. And it is symptomatic of almost all the arguments in the book. I don’t necessarily think there’s a fix. I think these questions are extremely difficult, and it’s best to say nothing than to pretend that we can actually make an informed judgment when in fact we can’t. Furthermore, there’s no fundamental reason why only the environment should be the outlying factor in an outlying person. Genetics and intrinsic ability can also be an outlying factor (i.e. some people are much taller than others, so why can’t they be much smarter than others?). In fact it is likely that extraordinarily outlying persons, the Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’, are so because both their personalities and environments were outliers. Determining the relative contribution of each to an average outlier’s life is a question that is likely to be beyond the reach of science for some time to come.

One comment

  1. :)) I am reading this book.right now.You writing so good.I am a PhD student of Chemical Engineering-System Biology.Born and raised in Iran,moved to East Asia and later on to North America(Canada).Share some common interests with you and found myself here in a Friday evening by accident.
    Have a great weekend.

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