Outliers – The Story of Success

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008; 285 pages.

Outliers is an odd choice for a Beacon Lights book review. Perhaps readers of the Beacon Lights would be expecting a religious book of some sort. Outliers is not. It is a thoroughly secular book intended for a secular audience. However, this book is a real gem for the discerning Christian reader.

The author of Outliers (as well as Blink and The Tipping Point), Malcolm Gladwell, would have us consider “outliers”—people who are so smart, people who are so rich, people who are so highly skilled—that is, people who are so very far above normal that they are “off the charts.” How did they get to be that way?

Which Canadian hockey players become the stars? How did Bill Gates get to be one of the world’s richest men? Why do Asian students perform so much better than American students at international mathematics competitions?

Mr. Gladwell challenges the common notion that these are all self-made people who worked hard to make themselves into what they are. The whole idea of the self-made success story living the American dream is a naïve misconception. For a person to tell himself, “I deserve it, so I’ll dream it and by strength of will and positive attitude, I can achieve my own success” is foolish. Although it is true that hard work is quite necessary and often rewarded, Gladwell insists that there is much more to the story of outliers.

The author proposes that Canadian hockey players born in January or February have a significantly better shot at success than their peers born in November or December. Bill Gates’ success story hinges on the fact that the mothers’ club at his school purchased a computer terminal in 1968, when Gates was in seventh grade. To find the reason behind excellent math students in Singapore, the cultural background must be considered. Gladwell insists that circumstances and culture matter a great deal more than one might care to admit.

It was incredibly fascinating to read the whole story and get the full explanation behind these success stories. The entire book is full of captivating insights into the complex circumstances of life which can send one toward success and another toward anonymity. (Who has ever heard of Chris Langan, the man whose IQ is almost immeasurable?)

Truth be told, random “circumstances” do not determine who will be successful and who will not. God does. He is the Lord and maker of us all, according to Solomon’s proverbs (Prov. 22:2). Yet, to someone who is familiar with the doctrine of God’s providence, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliersis a wonderful testimony to how “nothing happens in this world without His appointment” (Belgic Confession of Faith, Art. 13). Gladwell shows no signs of being a Christian, but a major premise of his book is this: something is responsible for the phenomenal success of some people, and it isn’t the people themselves! The author makes no mention of God and his providence, but we know what is true. God is God. For a child of God, reading Outliers can be a refreshing, worthwhile taste of God’s sovereignty in the lives of all men.

Not everything in this book was equally appreciated. The author points out that the Beatles didn’t get to be world-class by accident, either. In his discussion of the Beatles’ rise to fame, he also briefly exposes the sleazy side of their lifestyle—something better left unsaid. Another point of disagreement would be what Gladwell means by “success.” To him, success is judged by the world’s standards: fame and riches. However, if the young people of the church strive to be godly citizens in the kingdom of heaven and healthy members of the instituted church of Jesus Christ, then that would be true success, even if they earn a bit less than Bill Gates or fail to make it to the big leagues.

Outliers is a fascinating book, but Gladwell drops the ball. Think about it—he actually managed to write a book about God’s providence without mentioning God or providence. It is a serious flaw. Still, I heartily recommend the book. Read it with God’s providence close to mind and God’s name dear to heart.