I’ve been reading some nonfiction this week for a change. Becca and several other people I know have highly recommended Malcolm Gladwell, so when I saw his book Outliers on the shelf in the teacher’s lounge, I decided to borrow it.
I found the book really fascinating, and I finished it in about two days (I might have had a lot of downtime, due to a lot of students being on a field trip.) Gladwell attacks the myth of the self-made man by arguing that very successful people benefit from advantages that come from their environment, the culture they grew up in, the values modeled by their families, and even arbitrary factors like when they were born. He uses a large number of examples to illustrate this, from Bill Gates to the Beatles to his own family.
Of course, Gladwell is not arguing that these people are not hardworking and talented. They are. But they were lucky as well. For example, Bill Gates and many of the software entrepreneurs we’ve all heard of were born in the mid-1950s. This might seem like a random piece of trivia, but it’s actually one of the keys to their success. Being born during the 1950s gave them just enough time to become experts in computer software before personal computers and the internet got really popular. If they were any older, they would already have had good jobs, and if they were any younger they would not have had the experience they needed to take advantage of the opportunities available at a specific point in time. As Gladwell puts it, “They are the products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy.”
As a linguist, I was particularly excited to see Gladwell writing about intercultural communication using linguistic evidence. For example, people who speak languages with short, easy to understand names for numbers tend to do well in math. This was part of his argument that cultural legacies can influence success in either positive or negative ways. Another example was how the cultural legacy of cultivating rice has positively impacted the Chinese educational system. Gladwell argues that by considering factors such as these, we can work to make everyone more successful.
I am giving this book five stars. It was an engrossing read, and I am seriously considering giving it as a gift in the future. ★★★★★