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January 21, 2009

REVIEW: Outliers: The Story of Success

(By Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown & Co.; 320 pgs., $27.99.)

Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell, acclaimed speaker, journalist and author of pop-sociology books “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” is himself an outlier, the kind of person he describes in his new book as different from the representative sample. Gladwell’s theory here, explored in exhaustive detail, is that people we (society) generally consider successful are that way not because of any single element — talent, intellect, proficiency — but because of a combination of factors, including family, upbringing, culture and bloodline.

Gladwell charts The Beatles, Bill Gates and a host of far-less famous people along the course of achievement, and it turns out, every time, their success was the product of some mix of dedication to craft and environment. He writes of the 10,000-hour theory, which holds that to realize great success — genius-level success — one must hone for at least that many hours. The Beatles did it in Hamburg. Gates did it at a computer club in Seattle.

Where “Outliers” excels beyond pop curiosity is in Gladwell’s attempts to extend cultural influence beyond the rich and famous. He bores into plane crash data to show how a culture’s deference to authority figures — first officer won’t tell pilot he’s making a bad choice, at the risk of offending, as the plane flies toward the side of a hill — contributes to air disasters. He explores the unusual connection between Jewish immigrants, the garment industry and high-powered New York lawyers. He wonders why families dueled in Harlan, Ky.

Like his other books, you appreciate “Outliers” for its inquisitiveness toward that which we take for granted. Is Gladwell an outlier? I don’t want to give away the ending.

Gladwell speaks at the Kentucky Author Forum Thursday. The event is sold out.