I bought Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell on impulse on the way to Canada – it was 4 for 3, and I had the three books I wanted, so added this one … look, such poor form, I am already making the excuses in my head (and indeed in the post). As you can guess, not my favourite book of all time. It’s interesting and instructive if you believe that outliers (people with astonishing achievements) are a direct function of innate ability and pretty much nothing else. But, the surprises I had heard before. I knew that the athletics jocks were the kids born at the start of the rating year. I knew that there is seriously hard work is a key factor is the success of most really successful people. And, I knew that accidents of birth date, culture and the like can have a gigantic impact. If you haven’t read about this stuff then it might be an interesting read, and probably somewhat surprising. That I have heard it before doesn’t make it bad, so why have I got a downer on this book (and I have got a serious downer on it)?
The problem for me is that it has a horrible survivor bias in it. A survivor bias is the tendancy to disregard cases that don’t survive from reviews. In this case, Gladwell reviews interesting cases of outliers, but, by definition, they exclude the people who weren’t outliers. And, lest it pass people by, there are a LOT of people who aren’t outliers. So, he points out is that there is little about outliers to suggest that it is the innately gifted which make up such a group. He says that it is enough to be clever enough (or a good enough sportsman or whatever). And so it is. But, it also matters that you work very hard, and get all the lucky breaks. And, there are legions of people who fail on one or more criteria – and that doesn’t make them bad people, just not outliers. You can see this in spades in the music industry, where you have to be able to sing well, dance well, look good, and even then it’s a lottery. This isn’t unfair, it’s just the maths that comes with a model that promotes the promenance of a few people hugely, and you start with a huge pool.
So, I suspect that the aim of the book was to show, as the Observer puts it “Makes geniuses look a bit less special, and the rest of us a bit more so”. The truth is sadly very different, and much tougher on the soul. It is that you not only have to be innately good (though maybe not brilliant), but also work very hard and get very very lucky. Are you feeling more special?