It has always seemed to me that nonfiction books are not as popular in this part of the world as their fiction counterparts. By this I mean both how nonfiction does not seem to be as visible in bookstores, and also how there does not seem to be that many people writing nonfiction.
Maybe it has something to do with how we view reading primarily as a form of entertainment, and not as a kind of training to make ourselves more effective in both professional and personal lives. This is unfortunate, because while there is a lot of fluff in the genre, there are also some brilliant masterpieces which offer lessons that can make us live more consciously and productively.
It was with this thought in mind that I started reading some well-known and positively viewed works of nonfiction this year. It was during this branching out that I came across the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
In Outliers, Gladwell writes about some of the most successful individuals and communities, the outliers alluded to in the title of his book. Although his examples are in the context of the United States, it is easy to argue that the points he makes are universal and ones we can all find some use for.
Gladwell's basic claim is that all these immensely high achieving people had some common traits and also caught some lucky breaks that lined things up in their favour.
The author does not in any way wish to imply that these people got lucky or that they did not have to work hard. However, a close look does make one appreciate that luck did play a part, in the absence of which things might have turned out very differently for the people in question.
The author starts by talking about how the concept of innate brilliance can often be misleading. He mentions how in any field of human endeavor, one has to put in several hours before they can claim to be an expert. The author estimates this at about 10,000 hours.
10,000 hours is undoubtedly a very long time, and this is where the author's claim about luck comes in. He talks about how one has to be positioned at an exact point in time, and often geographical location, in order to be able to put in those hours of training. He backs this up with examples from areas as diverse as computer programming, music, and ice hockey. In each case, we are told how some of the key figures in these fields happened to be born at just the right window of time, and in some cases, lived in one of a small number of places where they could get the required amount of exposure to their craft. This list contains names like Bill Gates to The Beatles. Once again, Gladwell is not saying these people did not have the talent. He is merely pointing out how they got some breaks that other comparable individuals did not, and the difference this made in their career paths.
Gladwell then talks about how our attitude to work, towards others, and towards setbacks, is often rooted in our cultural backgrounds and even our native language. While this is sure to raise some eyebrows, the author is not talking about genetic determinism and that we cannot rebuild our lives the way we want. However, it is once again hard to argue that certain cultural backgrounds do not confer some advantages.
For instance, let us take the author's example of how the culture of hard work and putting in long hours that originated in the rice paddies of China years ago, benefits Chinese kids to this day by instilling a respect for hard work and the belief that your efforts always pays off. This is far from racial stereotyping. If anything, it is really unraveling and appreciating how beautifully the culture we build at home and society can endow our children with the skills to cope with an intensely competitive world. The author also talks about how this culture of valuing hard work was missing in the Eastern European culture, because the labor force there was mostly engaged in industry, where the payoff to the worker is less readily apparent compared to an agricultural setting. There is also a mention in passing of how the way numbers are represented in a language can either help or hinder students learning to do math problems, and how this can create more lifelong effects.
As many have pointed out, it is easy to take Gladwell's claims here as a thesis against innate brilliance and the notion of self-determination. However, to me and many others, this seems to be a misinterpretation of his work. If anything, Gladwell espouses the value of hard work, of sheer persistence and the faith that efforts bring rewards. Sure, he mentions how these values come more naturally to some cultures than to others. There is simply no point denying that some cultures have something that gives them an edge over the others. The right response, it seems to me, is to value these differences and learn to incorporate them into our own lives. This is essentially what Malcom Gladwell is telling us - to learn from everyone else what works, and add it to our own arsenal in the journey of life.
In statistics, outliers refer to data points that are markedly different from all the other ones in the collection. In his book, Gladwell similarly looks at the lives and work of some of the most successful people in society today. He is not discounting their efforts, merely pointing out how they were often helped by their cultural background, the times they lived in, and how they viewed hard work. If anything, his book is a source of immense hope for all who would want to believe that if they simply give their heart and soul to a cause, it can make all the difference in the world.
The reviewer is an avid reader and contributor to this page.