At a small private school in Seattle, a group of mothers scrounged up $3,000 to purchase computer equipment for the students. The school didn’t really have any computers before that, so the gift was a great opportunity for the kids, especially the young geeks who did what geeks tend to do when confronted with technology. It sounds like a heartfelt story you might hear anywhere in America. But this tale takes place at a school named Lakeside in 1968, and the geeks included future Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, uses the introduction of computers at Lakeside to demonstrate one of the key features of those who, like Gates and Allen, excel far beyond the bulk of humanity: opportunity. The countless hours that Allen and Gates devoted to their beloved mainframes (an example of the book’s “10,000-Hour Rule”) helped guide their careers. But Gladwell puts the focus instead on the mother’s who purchased the computer equipment, a chance opportunity that gave Microsoft’s pioneers a key advantage. For the outliers discussed in the book, “success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: where and when you are born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were.”
Gladwell is a gifted storyteller, and he is adept at finding just the right anecdote or statistic to move his points forward. But as I read the success stories fleshed out in his text, I found myself unsure if he was drawing the correct conclusions. Bill Gates is a perfect example. He was certainly provided with great advantages, growing up in a time when computing was about to make the transition from business to personal, and coming from a family with the intellectual and financial means to put him in places of opportunity. But he was also a genius of sorts, an aspect of outlier success that Gladwell downplays. To make the anti-genius theme clearer, Gladwell relates the woeful tale of a genius named Christopher Langan who experienced one opportunity setback after another, despite his high intelligence.
Outliers looks to the “web of advantages and inheritances” that great people experience. In the book, the forces that birth outliers are external rather than innate. It was this emphasis that I found lacking. Bill Gates wasn’t the only youth in 1968 to give his every waking hour to computing. But he was one among only a tiny handful of these students to become someone on the level of, well, of Bill Gates. There was something more than opportunity, something more than heritage, that made his success possible, and Gladwell discounts it.
Despite this oversight, the book is still a great read. I found the chapter that discusses the transformation of Korean Airlines from an accident-prone company to one that has one of the best safety records in the industry simply fascinating. Gladwell ends the book with a story of his own family life, hinting not so subtly that he himself is an outlier, and that you, dear reader, might be as well.