Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008).

As hopeful as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point was (small adjustments can yield cataclysmic changes), Outliers represents its mirror image. Holding up The Tipping Point to a proverbial mirror would produce not an exact replica of Gladwell's prior work, but its reverse.

Outliers explores the ingredients of success. It concludes that success essentially comes through a confluence of factors that are mostly beyond one's control.

First, Outliers essentially posits that you cannot excel unless you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Gladwell illustrates this principle by noting how hockey players rise to the top due to the time of year they were born. In the formative years when the best are culled out, those born at the beginning of the calendar year would be mature than their counterparts born at the end of the year, and hence would be selected for further development. Gladwell also discusses how lawyers (such as at Wachtell, Rosen and Skadden, Arps in New York City) riding the mergers and acquisitions boom were in the right place and the right time because other firms--the "white shoe" firms eschewed this practice area until it was too late, and lawyers comprising these firms were rejected by the "white shoe" firms and left to form these firms specializing in this lucrative practice area. Too, he shows that the big names who cashed in during the personal computer revolution (such as Joy, Jobs, Gates, Ballmer, Allen) were all born within a year or so of each other in the 1950s. This followed a similar pattern where the captains of industry during the industrial revolution in the United States, such as Carnegie, all were born within a narrow window of years.

Second, you cannot excel unless you enjoy immense talent. While Gladwell allows that genius is not required (and not a guarantee of success), those featured in the book invariably have a surfeit of talent, such as the computer industry's Bill Joy and Bill Gates and the lawyers comprising the law firms featured in the book. Now even if one has these first two factors in his or her favor, this will not invariably lead to success. The final factor is the single thing over which one has control, but it can't be obtained easily.

Third, and perhaps the centerpiece of the book, Gladwell argues that one cannot excel in just about any endeavor unless he or she put in about 10 years of hard work (and the right kind). He calls it the 10,000 hour rule, but he equates it to ten years of toiling. For example, Bill Gates enjoyed the "luck" (Gates' and Gladwell's word) of having access to a high-end computer in 1968 and thereafter to practice programming to place him in the perfect position to exploit this expertise during the personal computer revolution. When the time came, unlike his contemporaries, he already had been working in this field for about ten years. This rung true to me in the field of law. Some collegues and I have bandied about the idea (years before Outliers' publication) that it takes lawyers about 10 years to develop the skills to be excellent.

As usual for a Gladwell work, Outliers is full of interesting anecdotes. It's a quick read, but unfortunately loses momentum when it veers from these three main points. For example, its unduly lengthy discussion of the etiology of a couple of airplane crashes went far beyond what was necessary to make its simple point that certain cultural factors contribute to success or failure.

If you've enjoyed Gladwell's Blink and The Tipping Point (both reviewed here), you will enjoy this one as well--even if it turns The Tipping Point on its head.

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