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The Less Visible Sides of Success with Some Detailed Examples
am 4. Februar 2009
Early advantages plus talent plus lots of practice plus a good social heritage plus a large opportunity help people succeed. That's this book in a nutshell as described in a series of New Yorker style articles. As told, the story is much more entertaining than that, but I want you to get the essence. Mr. Gladwell knows how to pick and spin a story to make it appealing and intriguing, and he has done well on those dimensions here.
The book will inspire people to want to help others accomplish more. Any parent, any teacher, any coach, or anyone interested in improving society will find something stimulating here.
Let me give you a quick overview:
1. Mr. Gladwell draws his inspiration for this book from the studies of Roseto, Pennsylvania by Dr. Stewart Wolf and sociologist John Bruhn that established how social factors can improve or harm health. Mr. Gladwell wants to similarly expand our vision of what affects success beyond the sense that "raw talent" and "privilege" help.
2. Mr. Gladwell uses the birth dates of athletes to establish that annual cutoff dates for teams benefit those born closer to the cutoff date. This principle also affects school children. As a result, the older children in a cohort do better and get more attention. Mr. Gladwell proposes having more anniversary dates so that more youngsters will get early access to help and attention.
3. Mr. Gladwell tells us the background of Bill Joy, one of the great computer programming geniuses of all time. In the story, he points out that mastery of most disciplines requires 10,000 hours of practice. Mr. Joy got that practice at a young age because he had access to time sharing on a mainframe when most programmers didn't. The practice point is buttressed by a study of violinists that correlates how much they practiced to their ultimate success. Then, Mr. Gladwell pulls in the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples to support his point. He also looks at the frequency of accumulating large wealth to notice it is concentrated in one time period in one country.
4. From there, he gives us the sad story of a genius who hasn't been able to use his life for very much other than to win on a television game show, Christopher Langan. Mr. Gladwell goes on to argue that you have to be talented enough to succeed, but that talent level falls far below the genius level.
5. Mr. Gladwell next points out that parenting matters. Mr. Langan had little help there, but many privileged youngsters get enormous assistance which provides direct help and makes them more assertive.
6. Joe Flom is profiled next to describe his background before becoming the head of a major New York Law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. Great emphasis is placed on his being Jewish, so he couldn't work in the "white shoe" firms that didn't want to get their hands dirty with hostile takeovers; being born when takeover lawyers could do well; and being born into a family with a social heritage of prospering in the garment trade (a very exacting business that rewarded hard work and attention to detail).
7. Mr. Gladwell expands on the idea of a sociological legacy in part two, beginning with the apparent roots of Southern family feuds (think of the Hatfields and the McCoys). He next takes a look at how such social patterns appear to have affected airline safety (with a close look at Korean Air and an Avianca plane that crashed when it ran out of fuel). He then jumps across the globe to argue that the Chinese language's structure of words that involve numbers and the work involved in cultivating rice explain the advantages that many Southern Chinese students have in math over students in other parts of the world.
8. The story moves into its prescriptive stage in describing the results of an experimental public school in the South Bronx that helped youngsters get the structure and discipline they need to succeed . . . with very good results.
9. The book concludes with a look at Mr. Gladwell's Jamaican roots and how those contributed to his success.
Mr. Gladwell is such a provocative and intriguing writer that it seems rude to make any suggestions for possible improvement. However, I will be so bold as to comment on the ideas and the evidence.
1. Mr. Gladwell doesn't seem to take liking the task into account as a success factor. Most of us could eat chocolate candy until 10,000 hours had occurred. But how many of us like any other task that much that can be turned into a valuable form of human achievement? Without such liking, I suspect that much success won't occur. Self-discipline in the absence of liking will just lead to early burnout.
2. Mr. Gladwell seems a little confused about the contribution Bill Gates has made to software. Mr. Gladwell tells the Gates story as though Gates is another Bill Joy. Gates is more of a corporate strategist than a programming success. The famous programs on which Microsoft's success was based were drawn primarily from the work of programmers who weren't even at Microsoft.
3. In the airline crash examples, there is also a lot of research about how crews in all countries defer too much to the captains. Although that research is mentioned in passing, I felt like Mr. Gladwell was overstating his point. The issue in the Avianca crash was strongly related to not speaking American-style English with comfort. I think the book would have been stronger without the airline crash examples.
4. When you are writing about success (even as "outliers"), it makes sense to spend a little more time thinking about what you want to focus on. This book jumps from looking at geniuses who do things that benefit everyone (like Bill Joy) to people who just happen to make a lot of money (Joe Flom). If Mr. Gladwell had stuck with Bill Joy-type examples, I think this book would have been a lot more helpful.
5. If these points are so important, wouldn't it make sense to have the bulk of the book prescribe what to do differently? Mr. Gladwell doesn't take that part very seriously. As a result, the book is more entertainment than call to action.
6. By stringing together a series of article-style chapters, the book ends up being a bit choppy to read and follow.
I do recommend you read the book, and I hope that Mr. Gladwell will write a follow-up book that is prescriptive.
Thank you for much food for thought, Mr. Gladwell!