Genre: Non fiction, Psychology, Cultural comment
Narrative Style: Informal academic
Synopsis: Gladwell discusses the most successful, the brightest and best in various fields and how they got to the top.
Book Challenge: TBR Challenge
Time on shelf: About eighteen months. I didn’t think that this would be the next book I finished. I started to read this after The Kitchen God’s Wife and I was only reading it on my commute but it took my fancy so I finished it quite quickly.
This was a very enjoyable read. Gladwell isn’t particularly saying anything profound but his style is easy to follow and the illustrations he uses to support his ideas are interesting. I couldn’t put it down.
The premise of Gladwell’s book is that there are some people that stand out from everyone else – be it in intelligence, musical prowess, computing, sport – and he calls them outliers. He suggests that the usual reasons people give for their success are false – innate talent, for example, personality traits or habits such as getting up early in the morning. There is no such thing as a self made man and maybe we didn’t really believe that myth anyway but even so, the way that Gladwell goes about debunking it is compelling.
In some ways, there isn’t much variety to this book. Gladwell is making the same point all the way through but I lost count of the times I was surprised or intrigued by the examples he explored. The chapters are all structured in much the same way as well. He begins anecdotally, usually detailing someone’s life story or an event and then moves to research that relates to the life story and then finally back to the original story to show how we ought to be thinking about it. Again, I didn’t mind this as it helped me understand the points that Gladwell was making in a clear and simple way.
Gladwell begins by talking about Canadian hockey leagues and how the cut off for children to go into the highest leagues allows only the oldest children to get through every year (because they are just that bit bigger and older). Then due to the extra help they get, they become the most gifted that they were assumed to be in the first place. I see this sort of self fulfilling prophecy in education all the time. Those kids assumed to be gifted and talented are given extra lessons and opportunities so that the gap between them and their classmates widens. If we gave all pupils those opportunities we might see something different happen.
The first half of the book looks at individuals such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy and tries to alter how we normally view these narratives. Gladwell suggested that 10000 hours of practising is needed in order to master anything – a musical instrument, programming a computer – and then discusses the other advantages (e.g. his school had one of the only computers at the time to allow time sharing so he got to do real time programming in 1968) that people such as Gates had. He suggested that the Beatles got to be so big so quickly because of all the hours they spend in Hamburg playing set after set after set.
The second half looks at the way our culture affects our behaviour. Gladwell suggests that we inherit cultural information in much the same way that we inherit genetic information. He asks whether we should be taking cultural legacies more seriously than we do. The most interesting example Gladwell uses is that of a series of serious plane crashes involving Korean Air planes. So serious were these crashes that the Federal Aviation Authority were considering revoking Korean Air’s overflight and landing privileges in some areas of the world. Something had to be done. The problem was all to do with the way the pilots were talking to each other and to air traffic control. It transpired that the co-pilots were using mitigated speech because of the Power Distance Index which measures how a particular culture relates to authority. In these cases, the co-pilots were hampered by the power distance between themselves and the pilot – that is they were unable to tell the pilot they were making a mistake. Not only that, unlike in Western cultures, the onus is on the listener to work out what is being said, rather than the speaker to make themselves understood. This let to obvious difficulties in the cockpit. Once this was realised, Korean pilots were trained in a different way and the crashes stopped.
Overall, I enjoyed this very much. It’s not really all that radical but it did make me think about things I hadn’t considered and I will probably read more of Gladwell’s books.