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Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers: The Story of Success Audiobook CD – Audiobook, Unabridged
by Malcolm Gladwell

This was a really interesting read (listen, technically), and some of the lessons I took were not just from reading the book, but from the experience of having heard about the book.

Let me explain.

Outliers is Gladwell's book on very successful people. It is one of the books that, among other things, helped to popularize the 10,000 hour rule (concept). If you've somehow missed it, the idea is that attaining true mastery of something requires 10,000 hours of practice (for the record, that's about 417 days, if you spend all 24 hours of the day. In practice, it means about ten years of solid work.). There have been other authors who have written about this, but I first heard about it when people were talking about Outliers.

Here's the interesting thing. The 10,000 hour rule is a very small part of Outliers.

The substance of Gladwell's argument in this book is not that you need 10,000 hours to attain mastery. The substance is deeper, and in some ways, possibly more disturbing. Gladwell's suggestion is that success is the product of a number of seemingly innocent factors that have nothing to do with hard work or dedication, and have everything to do with circumstances of birth, cultural legacy, and no small dose of good luck.

Among his examples, he looks at how your birthday influences the likelyhood that you'll make it into the NHL, why the Beatles were so great, and why most computer moguls were born in 1955. The reason for the dominance of Jews in New York law, and Asians in mathematics are also discussed.

Frankly, it's not surprising to me that most people don't talk about this stuff. The 10,000 hour rule, while certainly daunting, conveys the message that if you just work hard enough, you'll attain mastery. The rest of Gladwell's work says "actually, you can be brilliant, and work really hard, but if you were born too early or too late, or into the wrong culture, you might be screwed anyway."

Of course, that's a cynical way to look at it, but there is sometimes truth in cynicism. There's more to success than working hard. Working hard is important, certainly, but it's worth acknowledging when working hard by itself isn't enough. Sometimes life hands you the opportunity to work hard at something important.

There's a couple of big lessons I've gotten out of this listen, at least as they relate to martial arts.

1. Get the story yourself.

I know this, but it's good to be reminded. It is too easy to fall into the trap of trusting what other people say. Until I read this book, what I knew of it was the 10,000 hour rule. Having read it, I actually know what the book says, and it's not just about the 10,000 hour rule. There's way more too it than that.

2. The importance of cultural legacy.

I've written about this before, pretty extensively, but I keep finding things that reinforce my belief on this subject.

Every martial art is created by a particular group of people in a particular social, cultural, and historical context for use by those people in that context And the further removed from the original people and context for which a martial art was created, the more the effectiveness of that martial art will diminish.

Gladwell doesn't talk about martial arts, of course, but he does talk about cultural legacies; how the Highland culture of Scotland still influences the way people in the American South behave toward each other. Why a culture of rice farming makes Asians good at math. If this stuff has any traction, do you really think that you can take your Samurai fighting system, bring it into a culture that bears almost no resemblance to the one that produced it, and have the results be the same?

This book is worth reading by everyone, martial artist or no.

[A personal request: if this review induced you to buy this book, please click on the link above to do it. Yes, I get some small fraction of profit off of you doing so, but hey, I convinced you to buy the book...that should mean something, right?]

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