Book Review: "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell


Posted on December 2, 2008 by Blake Leath

With Gladwell's third book, he is officially "2 for 3" in my book.

I give Outliers a solid, solid A.

With the exception of the Chapter Five and the Epilogue, which comprise the least engaging sections in the book, Outliers is one of the most remarkable books I've read in the past six months.

Gladwell's first published book, The Tipping Point, was simply outstanding.  Blink, however, was a real snooze.  (My own personal opinion is that he was rushing to cash-in on the success of The Tipping Point, but there was hardly a kernel worth writing about in Blink.  "Thin-slicing?"  Come on... much ado about nothing.  Thin-slicing, indeed.)

But this latest contribution, Outliers, is a real treat.  Candy for the brain.  It reminds me of all the great, wonderful, intriguing ideas that led me to study the human and social sciences in the first place.  To learn more about Outliers from Gladwell himself, check out  But the reasons I enjoyed it can be captured in the following representative list of topics that reminded me of undergraduate coursework in psychology, anthropology, and sociology that spurred me to continue studying and reading until... well... this very day:

1. patterns

2. selection, streaming, and differentiated experience

3. accumulative advantage

4. the 10,000 hour rule

5. divergent vs. convergent intelligence

6. general and practical intelligence

7. concerted cultivation vs. accomplishment of natural growth

8. the culture of honor

9. mitigated speech

10. the ubiquitous and unparalleled work of Geert Hofstede


So, why don't I give Gladwell an A+?  Well, setting aside Chapter Five and the Epilogue, my greatest concern is more substantive, of course, and it has to do with "too much cultural determinism."  By Gladwell's way of thinking, we achieve what we achieve, in large part -- in fact, practically predominantly -- because of the culture in which we are raised.  He strives to prove this through a series of stories and examples that are, indeed, fascinating.  But they are not quite enough to fully convince.

In the particulate, his anecdotes are super.  But in the aggregate, they border on stereotypical and ring somewhat hollow in today's increasingly 'post-racial and post-cultural' world.  Indeed, differences remain among and between people of various backgrounds, but as a dear friend of mine from Portugal once said, "We are not all that different.  There is TOO MUCH STEREOTYPING and GENERALIZING."

As Morris Massey articulated in his infamous, What You Are Is Where You Were When, some mild generalizations can be helpful, but they are inadequate.  Indeed, with any taxonomy or typology, generalizations give us what Robert Cialdini (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion) would describe as 'a shorthand way of interacting with each other,' but beyond that... generalizations and stereotypes can be dangerous and altogether misleading.

I am certain, as are countless others, that MANY individuals achieve a great deal on their own, as well as overcome and transcend the shackles of their culture, background, history, and surroundings.  I know that Gladwell does not believe, 100%, that who we are and what we accomplish is solely because of those around us, but he works himself into a corner of sorts by arguing so strongly that we do.

But, my goodness, out of 309 pages (all of which you will, indeed, read in a B-L-I-N-K)... if this is my only concern, then color me IMPRESSED and DELIGHTED and AMONG HIS BIGGEST ADVOCATES.

This book will prove to be enormously successful, and millions of people will soak it up like a sponge. 

Here's hoping they do... and wishing Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded could have achieved the stickiness of Outliers.