Outliers is a book that’s been on my list for an absolute age as pretty much everyone has read it! I finally read it after a friend lent me a copy!
Authors: Malcolm Gladwell
Topic: Self help, success
Appropriate for: Coaches, Parents and Athletes!
Overall rating: 4/5 – A solid read!
This book has been pretty popular in recent years as Malcolm Gladwell has created a lot of momentum due to this book as well as his other publications. The essential premise of this book is uncovering what factors have made people successful. Is it blind luck? Is it 10,000 hours of practice? Is it the environment? Is it nature?
The latest trend in modern culture is to look for the latest “hack”, shortcut or pill to achieve success. Hence the success of books like “The 4 hour work week” of “4 minute abs” etc. We are constantly looking to shortcut the hard work and look for the one key ingredient. This is too simplistic, we can’t isolate one factor and ignore all the others. This book taught me that actually this is a false economy – we can’t simply say hard work was the only key.
Here is a key example from the book, the stereotype of Asian students being better at mathematics. Gladwell provides some factors that may contribute:
- The difference in language between number naming systems in Western and Asian languages (In particular China, Japan and Korea). Eg. “Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen” in English compared to “ten-four, ten-five, ten-six”. This is even more noticeable when you get to higher numbers, “twenty, thirty, fourty” vs “two tens, three tens, four tens.” He suggests these languages help children learn to count much faster than native English speakers, and allows them to perfom basic maths functions earlier and easier.
- The suggestion that farming in the west is “mechanically oriented” vs “skill oriented” in Japan or China. For example, a rice paddy is significantly smaller, so to increase the yield of a crop you must be “willing to weed a little more diligently, become more adept at fertilizing, spend a bit more time monitoring watering levels, keeping the claypan absolutely level, make use of every square inch…” His suggestion here is that there is an intrinsic nature in Asian cultures to work more diligently and harder/longer than a mechanically driven western farming culture and he uses cultural proverbs regarding hard work as evidence of this.
Another example is the rise of Jewish lawyers in modern America. He suggests the following factors as being influential:
- Timing – being born at exactly the right time, not prior to the great depression, and not too late. Birth-rates were very low, meaning class sizes were at least half the size as 25 years prior. It’s also suggested the public schools in New York were the best in the country at that time due to these class sizes and exceptional teachers, the same true of colleges at the time.
- Specific prejudice against Jewish lawyers – forced them to work on frowned upon corporate takeovers which were out of fashion at the time. However, when these boomed, they were the experts in this area.
So how do these lessons apply to Sport? Well, we are often tempted to “cut and paste” the training programs of the latest high profile sport star at the end of their career – neglecting to acknowledge that the training program or coaching when they were developing was probably completely different! Or the newest technical drill seen on Youtube. Surely, this must be the secret of their success? Or perhaps it’s all to do with culture? Or high performance facilities? Or mass participation? Or genetics?
For every one of these factors, we can all think of an athlete who is the exception. What we need to acknowledge is that you can’t separate one single factor from the others. It’s all of them – born at the right time, genetics, access to resources, the work ethic, the response to training stimuli, the culture, nutrition, recovery, scheduling, selection, avoiding injury etc.
Take something as simple as avoiding injury – except it isn’t simple at all! Warming up adequately, balancing workload, proper hydration, adequate strength levels, adequate mobility/flexibility, proper technique, adequate sleep, may all reduce the likelihood of injury – but also sometimes it’s just good/bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time!!
So what can we do to provide the best chance of success for our athletes?
- Encourage them to work hard not just in training, but on nutrition, mindset and recovery etc.
- Continue to improve upskill our knowledge and practice as best we can
- Look to provide the best opportunities and environment we can to train, compete and improve
- Understand that we can’t control all the factors, we can simply work the best with what we have
In conclusion I think his summary is very true:
“They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”
You can find the book here: Outliers: The Story of Success
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