Outliers. The Story of Success

Malcolm Gladwell

Allen Lane, hardback


In 2005 Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer with The New Yorker, was listed in Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people. His two previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, have both been number one New York Times best-sellers.

Outliers ranges widely through the social sciences for its subject matter. Gladwell's thesis isn't specifically about classical music, or the music business. Nevertheless, it carries significant lessons for musicians, teachers, writers and administrators. Gladwell attempts to explain exceptionally successful people. Why do some people achieve so much more than others? What is the secret of their success? Can they really lie so far outside the ordinary?

'We normally start with the wrong question,' says Gladwell. 'We ask: 'what is this person like?' when we should really be asking 'where are they from?' Gladwell's thesis is that geniuses are made, not born. They are created by cultures, rather than genes, he says. We are told that every virtuoso needs roughly 10,000 hours of practice to excel. Gladwell cites the research of psychologist K.Anders Ericsson and two colleagues, who studied conservatoire violinists in Berlin during the early 1990s:

'All of the violinists were asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised? Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practised roughly the same amount, about two to three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practise more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practising - that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better - well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totalled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totalled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totalled just over four thousand hours.

Gladwell points out that the striking thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any 'naturals', those musicians who float effortlessly to the top without practising as much as their peers do. Of particular interest is that across many human activities the magic number of hours of practice for true expertise is the same: around ten thousand hours.

In finding Outliers enjoyable I am in good company. 'The audience clearly loves him: he is clever, and more importantly, he makes them feel clever,' said the Guardian, which ran an editorial In Praise of Malcolm Gladwell. However, one must report that elsewhere Outliers has been received with impatience. Cruel reviewers have written of 'genial and readable rag-bags of pre-digested research', of the scatter-gun habits of Gladwell's thought, and pointed out that Gladwell is 'always stronger with anecdote than analysis.' The Sunday Times labelled Outliers as 'largely platitudinous.' San Francisco-based columnist Andrew Orlowski has described Gladwell as 'a guru for the brain dead'.

Alex Beam, writing in the International Herald Tribune, reviewed the book under the headline: 'A Tipping Point for Gladwell?' and asked: Is it time to short Gladwell stock? Perish the thought that this epidemic of anti-Gladwell screeds could be connected with envy of high book sales!

John Robert Brown

An edited version of this review was published in Classical Music magazine, 14th Feb, 2009. Used by permission; reproduction forbidden.

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