Book Review: Outliers

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (2011)

What Amazon says:

In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers”–the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?

His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.=

Brilliant and entertaining, Outliers is a landmark work that will simultaneously delight and illuminate.

What I say:

Have you ever seen this section in a bookstore before?

“Self Help”

You know the idea:  If we just ‘pick ourselves up by our bootstraps,’ there’s nothing we either can’t overcome, achieve, or unf–k.  (If I just offended you; I apologize. I love the word ‘unf–k,’ and it was simply the perfect word for the sentence… for me)

While ‘self-help’ is a piece of the success puzzle, it’s not the whole puzzle.  In fact, by the numbers, it’s actually a much smaller piece of the achievement puzzle than we like to believe.  If you live in the United States, like me, we’ve been brought up on stories of rugged individualism as a virtue… like it’s the key ingredient that makes some of us rise above.  

Turns out it’s A LOT more than that, and in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell highlights all the lesser known factors that are often the KEY factors in determining someone’s success, or chances for success.  

The reason this book resonates so much with me is because of my recovery journey.  In a recovery journey, a person simply MUST elicit the support of external physical, social and spiritual factors to ‘find their way out’ from the abyss they’ve landed themselves in psychologically.  However, in our self-help culture, we often overestimate what we can and should be able to accomplish as individuals, and underestimate how big a role external factors play. It’s a paradox, because we like to be in control and feel like we have some say in the outcome of things in life.  In fact, research supports that the more we feel in control of our outcome, the more positive our wellbeing is.

Despite this, the more we learn about all the actors in the play, the less we have to rely on ourselves.  Our successes – and failures – are less about us than we think. This gives us the opportunity to be a little more gentle with ourselves if we can see that our expectations about what we can and should be able to accomplish on our own might be a little overblown.

I conclude almost all my talks with the the audience singing with me “Lean on Me.”  The reason? Because that’s how the game goes. Some days, I lean on you, some days, you lean on me, and we don’t keep score.  THAT IS BY DESIGN, by the way. 😉

Outliers elegantly describes this principle through numerous examples of things and people you’d assume were successful because of what they did, rather than because of who helped them at which points along the way.

We rise to our best on the backs of those who came before us, and Outliers is a wonderful reminder to relax a little… it’s not all on you after all.

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