Sunday, January 25, 2009

Finding New Patterns in Familiar Things - Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"

The thing that I love most about the writing of Malcolm Gladwell is that he enables me to see familiar things in new ways. For that reason, he is one of three writers of “business books” whose works I frequently re-read. The two other writers are Jim Collins (“Good to Great”) and Seth Godin (”Tribes,” “Purple Cow,” etc.) As a result of reading “The Tipping Point,” I no longer look at familiar objects in the same way – graffiti, subway turnstiles, broken windows. In the same vein, after reading “Blink,” when I attend an orchestra concert, I wonder about the process of auditioning prospective musicians behind a curtain to prohibit the jury from being swayed by gender prejudice.

Gladwell’s latest offering, “Outliers,” raises the curtain and reveals hidden patterns in such diverse realms as math learning, blood feuds in Appalachia and plane crashes. It is a fascinating study into the hidden factors – often cultural and anthropological in nature – that explain extraordinary levels of success. In the most simple form, Gladwell’s premise – beautifully told in gripping vignettes and mini-biographies – is that hard work is necessary for success – but more is required. He makes a compelling case by finding the same pattern of cultural antecedents occurring in widely disparate enterprises and parts of the world.

Early in the book, Gladwell talks about the rare longevity and health of the inhabitants of tiny Roseto, Pennsylvania.

“Wolf and Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn’t be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual’s personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was part of, and who their friends and family were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.

In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.” (Pages 10-11)

And Gladwell succeeds spectacularly in his mission to illuminate the topic of success. Later in the book, as he addresses the patterns of connectivity that have led to the spectacular success of some Jewish lawyers in New York City, he identifies the recipe that makes work satisfying for an individual:

“Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us. . . Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning” (Pages 149-150)

This book has great practical value. The cultural component of the communication patterns learned from studying the cockpit recording from plane crashes impacts the way in which one should communicate cross-culturally in a business setting. I am rushing to write this review this morning so that I can race to the airport to hand my copy of the book off to a friend as he prepares to head to Nicaragua for a business trip. I want him to have the advantage of Gladwell’s insights before opening his mouth in his first meeting in Managua tomorrow morning.

I am rushing to Logan Airport; I encourage you to rush to a bookstore or an on-line book source and pick up Gladwell's landmark work Outliers.



1 comment:

Britton said...

Nice review, Al. This has been my favorite Malcolm Gladwell book, and the most applicable "business" book I've read.

For the parents out there, it presents some compelling arguments to support the "nurture" case for success in the world. It certainly provided me with renewed interest in my children's development.