outliers“Roseto Valfortore lies one hundred miles southeast of Rome in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.”

I first encountered the writings of Malcolm Gladwell early in 2011 when I read The Tipping Point, a book about what causes ideas and trends to go from being small to suddenly taking over the world. I loved his style and while he’s talking about big sociological ideas, it was done in an unencumbering, relaxed style. He’s writing non-fiction, but he’s a good storyteller. I finally decided that I had to read him again, because I love a bit of pop-sci, and that led me to Outliers.

This is the story of what makes people successful, the outliers who did better than the average. As a society, we look at the people who have done so well and talk about how lucky they are, and in an overwhelming number of cases, we (and the people themselves) go on about how they pull themselves up from nothing and did it all by themselves. However, this book turns that on its head and shows that, far from doing it alone, any successful person needs the help of other people. But there’s more to it than that, even. Sometimes being successful is just being in the right place at the right time. There are probably millions more people capable of being huge successes than currently are, but what exactly is it that causes some to fly high and others to crash and burn?

There are numerous topics of conversation going on in this book, as Gladwell studies various people and looks at why they became so successful. He asks why all the best lawyers seem to be Jewish, why the best hockey players in Canada are all born in January, why a Korean airline was having far more crashes than the average, and how come the two most successful software engineers in history – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – were both born in 1955. There is luck to some of this, of course, but there also seems to be much about taking offered up opportunities. Certainly, he doesn’t argue that these people don’t work hard – he expands on the theory that anyone can be an expert in anything after 10,000 hours of practice – but he notes that there are more factors than just that involved. It is, he explains, often as much about background than it is about personality.

It’s a very engaging read, and quite easy. Above all, however, it’s entertaining and smart. The studies are interesting – Gladwell shows, for example, the exact reason why Asians are better at maths than Westeners – and each one shows a different aspect of what we know as success. As others have also pointed out, it’s also somewhat autobiographical, the last chapter in particular explaining how Gladwell came to be who he is, thanks to the opportunities and background cultures of his parents and grandparents.

This is definitely a book that will make you think, and hopefully make you smile. It might make you wonder how different your own life could have been if a certain something in your past hadn’t happened. Within these pages are documentations of the singular event that caused the Beatles to become megastars, and led to Oppenheimer leading the team that developed the atomic bomb. While you certainly do still have to put the work in, sometimes the only way to be sure of success is to have the right background. And if you don’t believe that, read this and see if it changes your mind.