Outliers: The Story of Success

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James Bishop
  • 439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Yes, Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success is on the Chief of Staff's 2013 reading list. Wait! Come back. Gladwell's ability to sift through a mountain of data and come away with life-changing insights makes the book fascinating.

Outliers examines how successful people--pilots, hockey players, lawyers, geeks, entrepreneurs, and more--rise to the absolute top of their professions.

It's not individual talent alone, he argues, but a more complex web of hard work, culture, birth year and other factors.

During an interview, Gladwell said that one of the most surprising finds in his research is this: how good a pilot is has much to do with what culture the pilot grew up in. In one of the most intriguing sections of Outliers, he recounts the story of the crash of Columbian Airlines 707.

In January 1990, Avianca Flight 052 was dangerously low on fuel, in a holding pattern above Kennedy Airport in New York City. The first officer, who is flying the plane, is aware they are about to crash. When a flight attendant enters the cockpit to ask how serious their plight is, "The flight engineer points to the empty fuel gauge, and makes a throat-cutting gesture with his finger," Gladwell reports.

When Kennedy's air traffic controller tells Avianca 052 he wants them to go 15 miles northeast before turning back to begin another approach, he asks if they have enough fuel to do that. First Officer Mauricio Klotz replies, "I guess so. Thank you very much."

They didn't have enough fuel. Five minutes later, the airplane crashed in Oyster Bay, Long Island, on the estate of tennis star John McEnroe's father, killing 73 of the 158 passengers on board.

The reason for the crash, Gladwell argues persuasively, is cultural politeness, or "mitigations" - a softening of tone from first officer to ATC. Gladwell explains that subordinates from some cultures are unwilling to confront a supervisor.

The implications for a military audience are clear: When the stakes are high, be direct.

Gladwell's genius in this chapter is to combine cultural analysis, drama, aviation experts, cockpit transcripts in a way that's not only interesting, but intended to model success.

Historically, for example, planes are much more likely to crash when the captain is flying than when the first officer is flying. Gladwell concludes that the captain isn't afraid to correct the first officer. Not so the reverse.

That's just one chapter.

Gladwell, an international bestselling author, is himself a study of success. His three most famous books -- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; and Outliers - were all #1 New York Times bestsellers.

In this 285-page book, Gladwell explores the various and surprising ingredients of the highest levels of success. Some aren't surprising: hard work matters, a lot.

The Beatles had performed live about 1200 times before their 1964 breakout success.

"Most bands today don't perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers," Gladwell writes. The "magic number" to become an expert, in anything, it turns out, is 10,000 hours of concentrated work.

Other crucial elements seem random until Gladwell explores them. For example, if you're a hockey player in Canada, it's better to be born close to Jan. 1, as a majority of their hockey stars have been. The explanation? The eligibility for age-class junior league hockey is Jan. 1, so a boy born then has nearly 12 months maturity over a boy on the same team born in December. The older boy gets selected for the elite team, has better coaches and plays more games. In a brilliant section, Gladwell recasts a play-by-play description of the Memorial Cup Final, substituting birthdays for names.

Another surprising (and comforting) fact is that being smarter doesn't equate to being more successful. "The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the larger the role preparation seems to play," Gladwell writes.

Gladwell finds that there's a "threshold" of skill or intelligence necessary to succeed in a field, but after you've reached the threshold, other factors, such as practice time and opportunities, matter more. This book illuminates those other factors. It's brilliant, and it's fun.

Gen. Ronald Fogleman created the CSAF Professional Reading Program in 1996 to develop a common frame of reference among Air Force members. Each CSAF since then has continued the Professional Reading Program.

This book is itself an outlier on the CSAF's reading list. It's not about war or leadership. Only one chapter is about aviation. It is the rarest of books - fun, insightful, and stimulating.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Air Force, or any of its components - no endorsement is implied.