Gladwell's Outliers: Timing is Almost Everything

The new book offers Microsoft founder Bill Gates as an example of how a lucky birthdate, among other things, portends success

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Another 'Aha!' book from the best-selling writer, Malcolm Gladwell.

The Bad: One wonders: Did he leave out evidence that contradicts his thesis about success?

The Bottom Line: Challenging common assumptions, Outliers will have readers pondering their own destinies.

Outliers: The Story of SuccessBy Malcolm GladwellLittle, Brown; 309 pp.; $27.99

Why is Bill Gates a billionaire? He's smart, of course, and he has tremendous ambition. But he probably wouldn't have started Microsoft (MSFT) if he hadn't been born in 1955. That made Gates old enough to take advantage of the opportunities that opened up with the introduction, in 1975, of the Altair 8800, the first do-it-yourself computer kit. But he wasn't so old as to be too settled in his life to take a leap of faith.

Gates also was fortunate to attend Lakeside, a private school in Seattle with its own computer. The Lakeside machine was one of a new generation of computers that shared processing power with a much larger computer downtown. That meant he could learn programming without being slowed by the laborious punch-card process used for computers just a year or two earlier. Gates had thousands of hours of programming under his belt when the Altair became available, making him perfectly prepared to take maximum advantage of the PC revolution.

Coincidence? Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was born in 1953, Apple (AAPL) founder Steve Jobs in 1955, and Sun Microsystems (SUNW) founders Bill Joy and Scott McNealy in 1954. All of these Silicon Valley pioneers succeeded not just on their extraordinary talent but also because they had the right opportunities at exactly the right time. And there you have the premise of Malcolm Gladwell's latest guaranteed best-seller, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell already has two huge hits in The Tipping Point and Blink. Both books were distillations of academic research that explained us to ourselves via clever anecdotes and accessible language. Outliers employs the same formula and is another "Aha!" book that's hard to put down. But it's more ambitious than Gladwell's previous outings. The Tipping Point and Blink reinforced what we already sort of believed. Outliers challenges common assumptions about high achievers as it builds a case for nurture over nature, attitude over aptitude.

This time out, Gladwell offers some policy prescriptions, suggesting that a lot more children would excel if the educational system were restructured to overcome cultural differences and the luck of the draw. Lengthen the academic year in the U.S., for example, and American children might better measure up to their high-achieving Asian counterparts, who attend school 80 more days a year.

Such notions can seem simplistic. But even if one can't help wondering what contradictory evidence Gladwell may have left out, Outliers is thought-provoking. His insistence that cultural heritage, timing, persistence, and an eye for the main chance are the determinants of success is sure to have readers considering their own destinies.

Consider this: Two-thirds of Canada's pro hockey players were born in January or February. The same holds true in college and high-school all-star teams. It turns out that youth leagues in Canada organize kids by age, based on the calendar year. Children born in the first two months of the year are inevitably larger and more coordinated than teammates six to 10 months younger. So they get more ice time, more coaching, and more chances to excel. Gladwell suggests that a lot more stars might arise in various endeavors if children were grouped with no more than a three-month birth differential.

He also dismisses the notion that the "gifted child" who scores at the top of intelligence tests has advantages. Although some smarts are necessary, beyond a certain level they don't help. What does matter, he says, is the 10,000-hour rule. No one gets to the top unless he or she puts in 10,000 hours of practice in a field, be it computer software, hockey, music, or law.

Outliers can be repetitive. Gladwell also veers off track at times, as in his explanations of why Korean airline carriers have more crashes and why white Southern men seem prone to violence—hardly examples of success. He does pull his stories and studies into an overarching narrative, however: that it is not the best and the brightest who succeed but those who are given opportunities and have the presence of mind to seize them. If a million more teenagers had been given the same chances as Bill Gates, how many more outliers might we have? "When we misunderstand or ignore the real lessons of success, we squander talent," the author concludes. A point worth pondering.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.