The digested read: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Allen Lane
Price £16.99

Out-li-er, noun

1: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from others in the sample.

2: yet another attempt to cash in by presenting a whole load of seemingly counterintuitive facts to tell you something you basically already knew.

One spring day in 2007 the two finest teams in the Canadian Hockey League met in the final of the Memorial Cup. These were the future stars of the sport, the 18-year-olds who had risen to the top of the sporting meritocracy on sheer talent and determination. Or had they?

This is a book about outliers, the people who do things above the ordinary. By looking at them I will get you to rethink your ideas of success. The question we always ask about the successful is, what are they like? But the real question is, where did they come from? Men such as Bill Gates didn't rise from nothing. They were once children with mothers and fathers. Amazing, but true.

Take the Canadian hockey players. Look through this team list and see if you can spot the anomaly. David Kveton, born Jan 1, 1988; Jiri Suchy, born Jan 1, 1988; Leonard Cohen, born Jan 1 1988.

You probably missed it. So let me help you. They were all born on January 1. This is because January 1 is the start date for each year's registration, so those born on that day have a huge developmental advantage. Only myself and pushy Canadian hockey parents who shag like rabbits in late March have noticed this. Perhaps one day someone might bother to research the educational effects of being a late baby in the academic school year. Oh. They already have.

Bill Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems and has become one of the richest men in the world. Most people have attributed his success to his being a complete neek. But this is only half the story. Joy also worked very hard. Research shows that those people who have worked for 10,000 hours are the ones who become successful - though I'm obviously hoping to be an exception to the rule. Timing is also critical; if Joy had been born in 1531, he probably wouldn't have had his own bedroom as a teenager to write code undisturbed.

So geniuses aren't created out of nothing. Let me pad this out a bit further with another lazy, rambling anecdote. Joe Flom is an extremely fat, ugly man who also happens to be one of New York's most successful lawyers. So how did a fat, ugly man become successful? Flom is also Jewish and was ostracised from traditional law firms in the 1950s and left to do the unpopular legal work, such as hostile takeovers, that no one else wanted to do. When these became standard business practice in the 1970s and 80s, he became very rich. Who would have thought it? Flom was from the right background at the right time and cashed in. If he had been born in 2020 he wouldn't have been born yet and things would have been very different.

In the 1980s and 90s, the Koreans crashed a lot of aeroplanes and no one really knew why until I looked up the crash investigation reports and copied them out here1. Koreans come from a society where people are taught to respect their superiors, so first officers never challenged the pilot if they thought they were making an error, preferring to let the plane crash. They have now all learned English, call each other motherfucker in the cockpit and their safety record has improved.

People are reluctant to stereotype people by ethnic group, so I should score contrarian points for that. And this. The Chinese are good at maths because of something to do with paddy fields and because their numbering system is easier than ours. I'm not sure this adds much, but what the hell. I looked it up, so you can read it.

Finally, take me. If I had been born 60 years ago, I would have been an unknown. But luckily, society now rewards chancers having a bad hair day.

1. Putting footnotes in a pop psychology book can be a good way both of filling up space and boasting academic respectability. The outlier is that it also colludes with the reader's vanity by implying they are clever enough to read a book with footnotes.

The digested read, digested: Paul Daniels meets Noel Edmonds.

Hear the digested read podcast at


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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