Outliers
The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane)


Malcolm Gladwell seems to be well on his way to becoming some odd combination of Stephen Fry, Clive James, James Burke and Rolf Harris - a populist polymath, thinker and polemicist who in this case has chosen a new area of study that straddles business, economics, sociology, psychology and statistics.

With hits such as Blink and The Tipping Point behind him, Gladwell is the icon of pattern identification - or maybe just pop-sociology, depending on your point of view.

The popularity of the genre that Gladwell reigns over is such that it can even persuade thousands of people to pay to hear him speak. Why? In part it's the quirky appeal of Gladwell himself. British-born and Canada-raised, he is the son of an English father and Jamaican mother and stands out in a crowd thanks to his shock of hair and passionate yet lugubrious delivery.

But there is also substance here. In 2000, he wrote The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, a book that sought to show why certain phenomena, such as products, beliefs or behavioural tics, become widespread in a manner he said was virus-like.

And in 2005, Blink, subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, saw through the human tendency to spontaneous decision-making, for example in making impulse purchases, ‘thin-slicing' information within an instant, after paging through our instincts, prejudices and limited knowledge to jump to binary conclusions.

Both books were thought provoking, well argued and well supported by example, and deservedly won a wide audience for this New Yorker journalist turned publishing jukebox. Now Gladwell is back with Outliers, a study of what makes for success.

The theme and form are familiar, with Gladwell turning his attention to discovering the factors that made Bill Gates, or that lesser-known but still highly influential Bill, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, successful.

It's not just technologists, of course. Gladwell's palette has always been large and this time it encompasses The Beatles, Canadian ice hockey players, Asian mathematics child scholars and many more.

Gladwell's conclusion is that a combination of timing, location, hard work, culture and chance make for great success. Some have already carped that this is hardly an earth-shattering insight and that Gladwell might be running out of fuel when it comes to trendspotting, and that well-worn cliches such as "timing is everything", "being in the right place at the right time", "success is one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration" or "the harder I work, the luckier I get", already tell us all we need to know about success.

Even where Gladwell does reach for originality, for example through studying the effects of when children start their schooling, the results are less than convincing. Also, his implicit drubbing of common notions of genius, natural talent or self-made men strike a rather shrill note. OK, so many people might have had the ability to build a Microsoft but how many could have discovered the theory of relativity, led a country like Winston Churchill or played football like Diego Maradona, even given identical opportunities and circumstances?

The criticism that Outliers lacks the sharpness of his previous books is probably fair enough but Gladwell is always effervescent and full of emblematic tales. That bubbling enthusiasm and breadth or reference, rather than new ways of looking at the world, might turn out to be his legacy and the reason to keep reading this modern fountain of knowledge.

Outliers at Amazon