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Monday, January 05, 2009

Outliers

For Christmas, I gave myself a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, The Story of Success. After the success of his first book, The Tipping Point, published in 2000, Gladwell's second book, Blink (2005), was a bit of a disappointment, so Outliers was heavily hyped. In Outliers, Gladwell asks the question, why do some people succeed while so many more never reach their potential?

To answer this, he revisits the old nature versus nurture debate. Although easy to read, I find Gladwell's writing a bit flaccid, and the excessive tabulation of data which pads out Outliers meant that after a few chapters, I found myself skipping quite large sections of the text, finishing the 285 pages on Boxing Day.

Although it's hard to argue with the cases that Gladwell explores in detail (Canadian ice hockey players, Korean Air pilots, Bill Gates), in Outliers Gladwell is arguing a flawed one-tailed hypothesis. Yes, he's right about hockey, Gates and pilots, but he ignores so many other more complex and frequently occurring situations where this simplistic approach does not give a satisfactory picture. In taking this pseudo-statistical approach to his subject, Gladwell has fallen into the classic trap of using statistics the way a drunk uses lampposts - for support rather than illumination. Let me save you £8.49 by revealing Gladwell's secret formula for success:

Be lucky.

Hey Malcolm: one word - Fail. What does that say about your hypothesis?