three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-OutliersMalcolm Gladwell, who has written for the New Yorker since 1996, is the author of two previous nonfiction best sellers: The Tipping Point and Blink ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2006).

The Topic: As Horatio Alger and third grade teachers across America would have it, success results from hard work, determination, and intelligence. It’s only common sense, isn’t it? But what seems commonsensical quickly becomes nonsensical in the hands of Malcolm Gladwell, the master of a particular mix of social science research, firsthand reportage, and back-of-the-envelope philosophy. Drawing on examples as varied as great scientists and artists, Canadian hockey players, family history, and the titans of American business from the industrial era to today, Gladwell shows how successful "outliers" come not just from individual pluck. They also derive from the appropriate investments by society, their parents, social class, and Lady Luck—not to mention about 10,000 hours of practice.
Little, Brown. 320 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 0316017922

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Thought-provoking, entertaining, and irresistibly debatable, Outliers offers lively stories about an unexpected range of exceptional people—Korean airline pilots, New York litigators, immigrant garment workers, Asian math whizzes, low-achievers with high IQs, and, for good measure, Gladwell’s Jamaican grandmother. Overall, it’s another winner from this agile social observer." Heller McAlpin

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Gladwell’s point is that these accidents—date of birth, culture and social class—are the true determinants. … Gladwell’s conclusion is brilliantly simple. Success is a hand of cards played by someone willing to do the work, log the hours." Susan Reynolds

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"With an approachable writing style and detailed data, Gladwell invests his theory with urgency. After all, if so many of history’s luminaries benefited from specific advantages and opportunities, how many potential Einsteins and Gates[es] have fallen by the wayside because of plain rotten luck?" A. H. Goldstein

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"As Mr. Gladwell reduces complex sociological phenomenon (such as the success of Eastern European Jewish immigrants or the apparent facility of Asians for math) to compact, pithy explanations (exposure to the entrepreneurial culture of the garment industry and the efficiency-demanding requirements of rice-patty cultivation, respectively), you can’t help wondering whether something has been lost in the simplification. … And yet—for all the quibbles that may attend the individual stories that Mr. Gladwell has assembled—the thrust of his argument is right on target." David Shaywitz

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Gladwell reveals his special genius in the remarkable trilogy completed by Outliers. … [The achievement] is in spotting remarkable jewels in the vast rock collection of social-science research and placing them expertly into an exquisite setting." Howard Gardner

Philadelphia Inquirer 3 of 5 Stars
"Gladwell can sketch a memorable character in a few sentences. But the lessons we are supposed to derive, while occasionally embodied by a story in a fun way, are in no way surprising or, for that matter, useful." Crispin Sartwell

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people—like Bill Gates and the Beatles—are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

What explains whether or not Outliers succeeded with a given reviewer? Sometimes, Gladwell’s trademark style and wit were sufficient. Many critics noted some anecdotes that did not quite seem coherent, but they commended the book anyway because Gladwell is so entertaining and enthusiastic. Yet Gladwell’s talent alone was insufficient to earn reviewers’ highest marks. (Indeed, several who focused on this aspect of the book were annoyed that the author seemed to be merely offering common sense with a New Yorker sheen.) The reviewers with whom Gladwell truly succeeded were those who noticed the moral message of his book: if the factors that determine greatness are so much more complicated than individual efforts, our society should provide a nurturing environment where serendipitous coincidences abound and every person has a real chance to succeed.