If you want a nice beach read (in November) that’s filled with light anecdotes, lots of “truthiness” and Wikipedia-based references, then I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s new Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, you’ll learn such bold proclamations as:

  • Talent takes practice (and lots of it)
  • Success takes luck
  • Success also takes access to social advantages
  • Emotional intelligence (or, as Gladwell calls it, “practical intelligence”) is more important than IQ

So if you wanted the summary of the McDonald’s version of these McLite insights, there you have it. I just saved you $17, because Gladwell adds little to these observations other than stories that nicely highlight his points. There’s little critical thinking here, or even answers to obvious followup questions, such as why some people are able to put aside their cultural legacies, while others are not. How does one improve one’s emotional intelligence, when so much of schooling seems to be solely focused on grades? If one doesn’t have social advantages, can one still be successful? (Of course, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from this book.)

The fact that success takes lots and lots of practice has been known for centuries. Look no further than the apprentice/master model of tradesmen to understand that to become a master of one’s craft, one has to toil as an apprentice for many years. Toiling long hours itself, however, is no predictor since most of us have done so. You need those social advantages and decent emotional intelligence too. And even then, without a bit of luck, well, you still might end up being Allen Einstein instead of Albert Einstein.

Outliers are data that don’t fall nicely within the predicted model, but they can be very successful or very unsuccessful. Naturally, Gladwell focuses on success, mostly defined by earnings (in keeping with many people’s concept of “success” in the U.S.). Gladwell provides an overview of what dozens of other researchers and authors have done before him — bottling the formula for “success” and selling it to the masses as simplistic explanations for extraordinary success.

But others do it better and more thoroughly, and if you want something more than the McSimple version of this topic, I highly recommend Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin or Daniel Goleman’s classic work, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Yes, both of these books are more in-depth reads, but are backed up by a lot more research and insights into what are key factors that lead to greater success in life.

One take away from Gladwell’s book that rules over anything you’ll learn in any of these books, however, is that life is ultimately unpredictable and one’s success is often as much a product of luck as it is any specific talent, skill, experience or learning. For instance, Ransome Eli Olds began automobile’s first assembly line, building the Oldsmobile. But it wasn’t until Henry Ford’s innovations which eventually led to the mass production of the Model T did the assembly line forever became etched in history with Ford’s name. For every one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, there are dozens of Antonio Salieris who are largely forgotten by history’s pen.

One last note — Gladwell’s insights are male-based, so you won’t find any real discussions of what makes a successful woman in the book. He seems to think there’s no gender inequity in society (or in research), or simply doesn’t want to address this thorny issue.