Are you an outlier?

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As those who read our blog know, I am a huge fan of great fiction. Every once in a while though, something from the world of reality catches my eye. This month it was Malcolm Gladwell’s hugely popular book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

First, a quick bit of background to put the book in context (and so you can sound erudite at the next cocktail party): Gladwell is a bit of a controversial figure these days. Some think Gladwell’s work in Outliers and his other two best sellers, The Tipping Point and Blink are changing the way we understand our world. Others believe his books are a sleight-of-hand and not statistically valid—basically, the charge is that Gladwell develops theories, and then finds proof to support them–while conveniently ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit his ideas.

My opinion? I think Outliers is fascinating, and I find that Gladwell’s ideas are well grounded and rather hard to dispute. The premise of Outliers is that our “traditional” thinking about successful people (i.e., they are either born into privilege/opportunity or else work harder than everyone else and pull themselves up by their bootstraps) is just one part of the story, and that we often dismiss other criteria that doesn’t fit into this myth. Or, as Gladwell puts it:

“In Outliers, I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work … The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot… It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

Still skeptical? Here’s just a few of the things you’ll learn reading Outliers:

· An extremely disproportionate number of the premier hockey and soccer players in the world are born in January, February or March. You’ll learn why, and also why this has some alarming corollaries for our education system.

· The “10,000 hour rule” and why it was so critical that Paul McCartney and John Lennon met when they were teens, and, even more importantly, why the marathon sets the Beatles played in Germany when they were young was a catalyst for their future success.

· The reason why nearly all the computer gurus like Bill Gates, Bill Joy (rewrote the UNIX program we still use today as well as created Java), Steve Jobs, Paul Allen (Microsoft’s co-founder), Bill Hewlett (of Hewlett Packard) and Eric Schmidt (Novell and Google’s current CEO) were born within the same 3-5 year period.

· A study of people with high IQ’s discovered that once you’re “smart enough,” a higher IQ doesn’t translate into any measureable real-world advantage—that is, someone with an IQ of 130 is just as likely to be a CEO, invent something groundbreaking, or even win a Nobel Prize as someone with an IQ of 180.

The real hook of Gladwell’s book is that successful people indeed do stand apart from the rest of us, but often in surprisingly unexpected ways. I think HR leaders would find Outliers of great interest, and provide some innovative insight into their own company’s talent. For more information about Outliers, click here.


About Tony Rosato

Tony Rosato, Alstin's Vice President, Client Development, is the most well-traveled member of our team and one of the nicest guys we know. Sharing his 20 years of industry experience with prospective clients everywhere, Tony's Type A personality is powered by premium iced tea (but never chocolate).