Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, 2/5
Holy cherry-picked data, Batman! At least it’s hand-picked, I guess? That is about the nicest thing I can say for this book, which, though entertaining, smells like bad science. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think I’ve been exposed to enough good research and logical reasoning (thank you Daniel Kahneman and David Hackett Fisher) to recognize the sketchy stuff. The thesis is all over the place, ending with a laughable call to action that sounds great on the surface (let’s give everyone the same opportunities in life so they can all achieve success) but is idiotic in context (let’s wave our enlightened magic fairy wand and give everyone identical backgrounds, community, family legacy, historical timing, interests and skills, so everyone can be super successful genius millionaires). Frustratingly, this book’s popularity was inevitable–who doesn’t like to read a good success story AND be told that it isn’t all due to talent, you unluckily ordinary human being with untold potential, you.
Why I read it: Heard about it from my Dad, who thought it would be fun if I read it (I’ve been avoiding Gladwell for years).
This lightweight, unsatisfying book, written for an audience that can most charitably be described as extremely credulous, undemanding and allergic to anything requiring mental rigour, is a great example of what I hate about pop science. Alternating between a tone of forced humour and relentless summarization of psychological studies in the style of a college research paper, Gilbert gleefully explores humankind’s failings when it comes to remembering past events and predicting future ones (especially with regard to their impact on future happiness). For no apparent reason, he seems to consider psychological subjects’ reports of their current feelings as almost infallibly reliable (though the concept of “current” could itself be the topic of discussion), while devaluing reports of remembered and predicted happiness. In the book, he doesn’t explore the methodology of most of the studies he cites, so you are forced to take it on trust that the studies are reliable, in addition to trusting his own interpretation of the results. Many of the examples he uses seem open to other, conflicting interpretations, which he does not acknowledge or explain. Gilbert’s final conclusion, that we should consult the current feelings of people who are having experiences we hope to have in the future, in order to find out their real potential to make us happy or unhappy, is as unsatisfying as it is impractical.
It is understandable that some simplification and ambiguity is necessary when writing on a complex topic for the average audience, but I feel that Gilbert oversimplifies to the point of ridiculousness. I have no doubt that, in conversation, he would be convincing, enlightening and entertaining, but a book is not a conversation; if something seems wrong or raises questions, I have very little recourse (since I am not a psychology expert). Ironically, the experience of reading this book made me very unhappy, which proves some of Gilbert’s points, I guess.
Despite the book’s shortcomings, the average reader would likely enjoy it and even learn some interesting psychological stuff. But for anyone who likes to think or is looking for helpful advice, this book has not a shred of value compared to the mind-blowing excellence that is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
[Why I read it: The title caught my eye in the thrift store and I was impressed by the writer’s Harvard credentials and the quote on the cover.]