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Outliers, Who? November 21, 2008

Posted by Arun Rajagopal in Books, Social Media.
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, originally uploaded by aloshbennett.

So, what connects smart marketers, great doctors and super sleuths?

The uncanny ability to observe the hidden side of everything, which gives them a unique perspective to understand the often subtle yet radical, plausible yet disconnected causes of what drives certain behavior, events, trends and happenings.

‘Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner & ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’ by Malcolm Gladwell are two classic books which challenge our thinking by exploring what lies beneath.

While ‘Tipping Point’ explains how minor changes in ideas and products can increase their popularity and how small adjustments in an individual’s immediate environment can alter group behavior, ‘Freakonomics’ shows that economics is, at root, the study of incentives – how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.

In his new book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’, Gladwell features “outliers” – the super-successful men and women of the world who have “been given opportunities, and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” Example: Bill Gates.

He also connects success to nationality and cultural contexts with the example of how Asian kids perform better in Math when compared to their Western counterparts and says that the answer may lie in a cultural legacy – that of the agricultural tradition of rice farming!

Other central ideas in the book are:
1.    How being a member of an apparently distressed minority can sometimes be advantageous. Example: Jewish lawyers.
2.    You are what your community is. Example: the super-healthy community of Roseta in Pennsylvania.

So is Gladwell right when he debunks what he calls the “peculiarly American” belief that character, intelligence and hard work determine success?

I have been thinking quite a bit about Gladwell’s reasoning and applying it to a few examples around me. Surely, character, intelligence and hard work are invaluable character traits to possess. My belief is that success is a lot determined by being the ‘right person’ at the ‘right place’ at the ‘right time’ doing the ‘right thing’. And, working smart gets you farther than working hard.

During my 16-year stint in Oman, I have noticed that it is the migrant entrepreneurs who mostly came to Oman during the early 1970s or before who made it out biggest here. One of the reasons could be that they started enterprises that were a part of the massive development and modernization of the country which started in 1970 with the current ruler’s reign.

Non-migrant workers who came in during 1980s and stayed over till mid 1990s before returning to their respective countries would probably have much better savings compared to workers who came here in the early 2000s.

As cost of living skyrockets across the Middle East, specifically the GCC region (UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait), the saving potential of most expats is eroded, unless they come with skills that fetch them fat paychecks. This means that the GCC region is not the golden nest it used to be 2 decades ago, especially for blue collar workers.

Today, as the GCC economies and states race to further modernization and development that is at par with the West, the job market is more in favour of super-specialists – top experts with a wealth of experience in banking, finance, marketing, e-governance, health, safety & environment (HSE), engineering and real estate.

Back to ‘Outliers’, this  book might stir controversy for its generalizations on success vs. culture and ethnicity. But like Gladwell’s other works, it will change the way we see and understand the world. This is one book to grab right away.

From the book:
Outlier, noun.
1: something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
2: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample