Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a damn good read. I didn’t know what to expect when I cracked it; I didn’t even remember how I got it or why. The latter feeling tripled when I started reading. But I’m glad I stuck with it.
The book – a work of non-fiction checks this concept of exceptionalism – as in it debunks the notion that the people who achieve exceptionally in sports, business, technology, even health or aviation success, are just that gifted. It convincingly argues instead that in addition to talent, and something like 10,000 hours of commitment to the task, there is a particular set of cultural circumstances that comes together to create this phenomenon of exceptionalism.
Why are the residents of a small town remarkably free of heart disease issues, or why are some airlines accident prone? Culture comes in to play – and, yes, when it comes to questions like why are Asians good at math, some profiling deeply rooted in history, tradition, and an approach to living that pre-disposes people belonging to that culture to do well in this particular subject. What does exceptionalism at hockey have to do with where your birth date falls in the calendar year or exceptionalism in the legal profession to do with being not only Jewish but born in a particular period in the 20th century? And what does all of this have to do with Gladwell’s own trajectory as a Canadian-American of Jamaican descent?
He turns old soil in to something fresh here, in that he challenges the reader to see certain patterns, and then he confirms what we’re seeing.
My favourite chapter was the one on aviation disasters in great part because of the revelations about how culture affects communication and communication, disasters. If a particular culture is pre-disposed to defer to authority how will that affect how pilot and first officer communicate in the cockpit, and how either communicates with air traffic control? Using the voice boxes Gladwell convincingly makes the case that there may be nothing more important – yes, more important than technical ability. On the strength of this chapter alone I passed on the book to a colleague/friend who also works in the field of communication training, mostly because I want to have this conversation with someone. Gladwell’s theories will get you talking.
On the strength of this book – his keen analytical mind, daring yet obvious hypotheses, accessible writing style, and the sample chapter of the book after Outliers – I am keen to read all of Gladwell’s books. How’s that for a book I’m not sure how I got and was pretty sure I wasn’t particularly keen on reading in the first place?
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