Book Review: Outliers

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Probably most of you have heard of Malcolm Gladwell, the author behind such best-selling titles as Blink or The Tipping Point. If not, then just know that it’s stimulating, easy to read non-fiction that Wikipedia calls “pop sociology.” (Although I realize that someone could easily edit it if you wanted to fact-check me and change it to Andrew Peterson impersonator).

Anyway, Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, holds interesting truths within and specifically for the church. And it’s something I’m particularly drawn to since I believe the consequences could be huge.

Pause.

Let me back up a bit by saying that I’m in the middle of 1 Timothy in our teaching series at church. One verse within mentions doing everything without favoritism and remaining impartial in selecting leaders. All of our teaching weeks have focused on the development of a new community – that our world around defines us by our job, our status, our race, our class, our gender. But the radical reality of the Kingdom of God wrecks all those identities and erases all those lines.

Unpause.

Gladwell’s basic premise (Spoiler Alert!): we are all the same in our ability to succeed. To argue his point, Gladwell enters the realm of athletics, law, politics, corporate millionaires (et al.) to realize that from Bill Gates to Wayne Gretzky, they were simply a product of luck or chance and hard work. And anyone else in their same shoes could succeed on the same level if they were also willing to work hard.

The idea might sound far-fetched because we’re taught from the beginning that some are “gifted and talented” – as my school called it – and the rest were, well, not. Thus those who are deemed as “special” are given the extra chances to be even more special, thus continuing to separate the lines between the haves and the have-nots. In the end, you’re left convinced that Gladwell is onto something and that our society has ruined countless opportunities to embrace the down and out because we’ve bought into this sociological lie.

This is beautiful news to someone like me, trying to get a community of people to realize that all are equal, that all are called children of God, and that the body of Christ shouldn’t play favorites. What if we didn’t choose our favorites from class, but instead worked with all kids equally and made sure they all had that same chance? What if we created systems of learning or tutoring that believed that every child who entered that room could – given the chance – become something “special?”

I’ve always been privileged. Sure, I have my downer stories (growing up in a trailer park, etc.) but my reality was that I had very active parents (mom mostly) who worked with me incessantly. I knew the alphabet forward at one and a half, backward at 2, books of the Bible memorized at 3 and reading small books at 4. Someone chose me early and made sure I would be something.

Gladwell’s book goes beyond “cool cultural insight.” What it does is give us some proof, some solid reasoning, behind the Christian calling to make things level – that we would follow Jesus into his interactions with the poor and oppressed and marginalized. And that along with our feet and Good News, that we might bring some opportunity with us to help call someone “special” who has never heard those words before.

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


23 Comments

  1. Dusty

    Matt,
    unfortunately you can’t edit the intro section of Gladwell’s wikipedia page, or he would now officially be an Andrew Peterson impersonator.

  2. Aaron Roughton

    Matt, this book sounds fascinating. It seems to go against the way I think. I’m not familiar with Gladwell, but if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that he’s not arguing his point from a spiritual perspective. Is that right? In other words, it’s not just the “All things are possible” with God, no matter what your raw material?

  3. Tony Heringer

    Aaron,

    This is a secular work. I read Tipping Point and while parts are compelling, overall it left me nonplussed.

    Johnny (my name for Matt, cause he’ll never return to this powder keg):

    This sentence cracks me up: “In the end, you’re left convinced that Gladwell is onto something and that our society has ruined countless opportunities to embrace the down and out because we’ve bought into this sociological lie.” I’d say we’d be trading one lie for another – the lie that we are all the same or equal. I really don’t think that is the key issue from a biblical perspective.

    There’s a lot that can be said on the matter, but I’ll hold off to see if you’ll come back or do your usually post and run 🙂

  4. Aaron Roughton

    Sawyer (my new nickname for Tony since he gives everyone unsolicited nicknames),

    Thanks for the info. I think that you’re right that there’s a lot to be said on this matter. I’m curious about the book because I think it would take a lot of proof to convince me that “we are all the same in our ability to succeed.” Not to be too flippant, but take athletics as a very basic example. Is it just a coincidence that a majority of NBA players are around 7 feet tall?

    That’s a far cry, however, from the biblical examples of normal people doing God-sized things with God’s mighty help. It’s like comparing the weight of a single atom to the weight of the universe. Infinity + 1 = Infinity. So from that respect, yes, we’re all the same. Which is to say that we’re all relatively insignificant, and yet still loved immensely and undeservedly by a God who doesn’t mind being the majority shareholder in the power category. That’s why I asked about the spiritual nature of the book.

  5. Steve B

    Hi Matt and everyone. I think I disagree with you and Malcolm Gladwell, and also think I have pretty solid literal and spiritual reasons for doing so. Building off of what Aaron said, it is true that people have different skills, some by nature, some by nurture, and are therefore better at doing certain things, or getting certain things done requiring a certain type of thinking. While we are certainly all the same in Christ, we are certainly not all the same in ourselves. There are characteristics which make all of us human, and in that we are the same. But within those characteristics, we have a wide variety of gifts and drawbacks to our characters. Character is made up of much more than our characteristics. It’s back to Madeleine L’Engle’s analogy of the sonnet: a strict outer form, a freedom inside that form which produces wild variation and difference.

    Within the context of 1 Timothy, Paul talks about both a leader’s characteristics and their character. For example, a characteristic of a leader is that they are only married once. The character of a leader includes not being a lover of money. Some people start out life disadvantaged in that category, perhaps by being born into wealth and identifying strongly with a desire for an abundance of money, perhaps by being born into poverty and identifying strongly with a desire for an abundance of money. Some people aren’t affected by the role of money in their early lives, but along the way come to crave it, perhaps by experiencing great pleasure from what they can get with money and wanting moeny all the time because they want that pleasure all the time. And some people never become lovers of money. But those that do aren’t Paul’s idea of a leader, and some people tend, through nature or nurture, to more inclined to have a character which loves money.

    I agree wholheartedly with you that we as Christians are called to see and love everyone equally as children of Christ and with Christ’s love. Pope Benedict recently spoke out against the use of eugenics to pre-determine characteristics and characters in humans based on what we as a currnet global society value (such as productivity, efficiency, and striking eyes, for example). But we can’t claim that some people are more or less efficient than other people are. We can’t claim that everyone’s eyes, in their shape, depth, and color, strike us the same way. If Gladwell is truly advocating this, it sounds like wish-fulfillment to me, or otherwise an “I’m okay, you’re okay” kind of pop psychology. Praise God for it being true that I am okay and you are okay under the love and forgiveness of Christ! But neither of us are okay because we all have the same capabilities. We are both okay in the same way a human with Down’s Syndrome is okay, or someone who isn’t a good listener is okay (not me), or just doesn’t understand most math (definitely me) is okay: in Christ, not in and of ourselves.

  6. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    When I read Outliers I recognized a bunch of it as my own story – and so much of the book, at least to my experience, is true. I worked hard at music, but had a beneficial obsession with it. I had a music store proprietor for a Dad who gave me easy access to instruments and recording gear, and a middle class life that gave me hours upon hours of time every day to fuel my obsession.

    So I’d say read the book, put Christ in the center of it, and avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Extract the baby and ditch the dirty water. I liked Outliers; it gave me a gratefulness to God, and to my parents, for the opportunities that were presented to me.

  7. becky

    “What if we didn’t choose our favorites from class, but instead worked with all kids equally and made sure they all had that same chance?”

    The problem I have with this statement is that to give all kids the same chance you have to treat them unequally. They are not all starting at the same place. They have very different home lives, which may either support or hinder their learning. They learn differently and at different rates. They have abilities and disabilities, likes and dislikes. The best teachers are those who see the unique makeup of each child and create unique opportunities for each one to learn and grow.

    From a spiritual standpoint, obviously we are not to play favorites. But the body of Christ is made up of people with different gifts and abilities. We are not all hands or noses. It takes people who are kidneys, capilaries and eyes for the body to function in a healthy manner. For my hands to be successful at the tasks God has made them to do, I sometimes put lotion or gloves on them. Putting lotion or gloves on my eyes, besides looking ridiculous, would hinder their ability to perform successfully and could do irreparable damage.

    In addition, Peter, James and John had experiences with Jesus that the other disciples did not share. Were they Jesus’ “favorites”? Did Jesus love them more than the other disciples? Obviously, the answer is no. But he did treat them differently, perhaps to prepare them for different tasks.

    We do not play favorites in the church, but we do recognize, celebrate, and nurture the diversity that God has created within this united whole we call the body.

  8. Tony Heringer

    Aaron,

    I will call you Hugo because you are a wise and perceptive man — funny too. Sawyer is from a town not too far from me here in Suwanee, GA and one of my favorite LOST characters. “The Proprietor” (Andrew Peterson’s original “handle” here) started me on the nickname kick. It just sounded too plain for this place, hence Barliman Butterbur (the proprietor of the Prancing Pony in Lord of the Rings – a favorite of Andrew and many who frequent the Room). From there I guess the spirit of Sawyer did take over. 🙂

    Speaking of Lost, poor John Locke can’t catch a break can he?

    Johnny…ooooh Johnny? Where are you?

    See Aaron, its “Flame on!” and he flies away never to post again. Too bad, good responses and questions he should answer forthwith.

  9. Aaron Roughton

    Oh man, I haven’t seen last night’s Lost. No spoilers! What a great show.

    Ron, thanks for the encouragement to check the book out. I have a feeling that I will also identify with the reasoning that the privileged keep getting more and more privileges. I think there’s a lot to that. I just don’t think you can say that everyone would have been just as successful with the same privileges. But I’ll shut my trap now and wait until I’ve actually read the book!

  10. J.D.

    What about the 10,000 Hours Theorem that Gladwell advances? That’s the most fascinating to me: the idea that The Beatles, Mozart. Gates, et al., actually worked their way, hour by hour, into outlier status (and that The Beatles and Gates lucked out because they happened to be present at the beginning of Rock n Roll & the Computer Revolution, respectively.

    How does this transfer into our roles as Christians? So many times faith is seen as a “gift” or a sudden burst of inspiration and Light. In reality, it takes thousands of hours of practice. A look at the history of spiritual leaders like Paul, Martin Luther, or John Wesley shows that their “moments” came somewhat late, after many years of “patient endurance.”

  11. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    “we’re taught from the beginning that some are “gifted and talented” – as my school called it – and the rest were, well, not. ”

    I was never taught that and honestly I’m sort of dumbfounded to hear you say it. I’d say that overwhelmingly the opposite is what people are taught, at least in this country. One of the defining characteristics of America is that anybody can be anything if you are willing to put in the work to achieve it.

    I was just holding this book in my hands down at the Barnes and Noble and wanted to buy it but $28 is just way too much to pay for a book. Is it really a wonder that the publishing industry is flushing itself down the toilet when they are trying to charge people $30 to buy a book?

    Anyway, after reading your review I’m certain I want to read it. Maybe there’s a Kindle version for cheaper.

  12. ben

    Have not read Outliers. All of Gladwell’s stuff should be taken with a grain of salt and a pound of critical thought. Good Ideas, but a mere reflection of truth. He is dealing in some gray areas and sometimes presents them as black and white. I just read a book that counters Gladwell – Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye by LeGault. He poopoos Blink’s assertion that instant decisions are often best. He laments the lost art of Critical Thinking. It is interesting how the book has flavored some of my thoughts on Prospective Wives and my thoughts about education and parenting. It is not a great book, but I liked the premise and the stories from history in the book, Check it out. He has a new book coming out that I am more excited about – The Matrix Moment: From Einstein to Cold Play, Madonna to Picasso–the secret to creativity, innovation and powerful thinking.

  13. Tony Heringer

    Ben,

    Thanks for the Gladwell alternative. It is always nice to have a balance in thought. So many books, so little time — at least this side of Eternity.

  14. Matt Conner

    Don’t mean to start a fire and run, Tony, so thanks for the constant bashing 🙂

    I tend to write some things and leave them in the system. AP posts them when he wants, which means I can forget about things for days at a time if I’m busy.

    I have a lot of thoughts on these comments, most of which should be left unsaid. But I think the America on display in Will Smith’s “Pursuit of Happyness” is incorrect and the opportunity thing needs to be thought out a bit more. Really, you should just read the book – Outliers, I mean. I pastor a church in a poor, urban setting, so I’m up close and personal with this topic and feel he’s right on.

  15. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Just finished this book this afternoon. I enjoyed it. I was a bit irked at times because his conclusions seemed like obvious common sense and a lot of what he has to say is speculative but there’s no doubt that it’s food for thought.

    The most interesting part of the book was the chapter on the educational system. I thought that was fascinating and right on the money.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  16. Tony Heringer

    Matt,

    I love you buddy. As it says in Proverbs “faithful are the wounds of a friend” 🙂 However, I’ll leave the Johnny thing out of future posts. Dare I say I’m burned out on it? 🙂

    I was put off by “Tipping Point” for some of the reasons Pete mentions about this book, plus I found his case study on syphilis distasteful – there are other ways to make the point about epidemics. His points about “Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen” are good and probably my favorite part of that book. “Tipping Point” at some levels reminded me of Guy Kawasaki’s “Selling The Dream”.

    However, if I get a chance I will read the chapter on the education system. That is a topic of much press here in the Atlanta area as we rank, as a State, in the bottom in the nation (47th?) mainly due to areas outside of metro-Atlanta and the inner city of Atlanta. Having teens in the school system puts that on my radar, but I also have a heart for what these kids are going through and those who teach and coach them. So, any feedback of value on this system is worth checking out. Thanks for the heads up Matt and Pete.

    As for your work Matt, God bless you as you are in an area of ministry that goes right to the heart of God – caring for the poor and the oppressed. Our church has spent the last several years in an effort called Unite! It is an attempt to connect and leverage the resources of churches in our area to reach those in need: http://www.uniteus.org/pages/

    Two books that fueled our change in thinking as it relates to our community are:

    “Ministries of Mercy” by Tim Keller. This book has two parts. The first part of the book looks at “mercy in principle” and the second part looks at “mercy in practice” with the second part being more for the whole church as opposed to an individual. I can’t recommend this book enough.

    “The Church Of Irresistible Influence” by Robert Lewis This book deals with similar issues, but incorporates the idea of churches banding together – which is where we came up with the Unite! effort. It certainly has led to some interesting interactions, but all in all, its been a blessing to see churches in our area come together to work as the Body of Christ.

    The ideas put forth in those books have had a great impact on how our church functions in our community (see this link for more details http://www.perimeterchurch.org/index.php?module=ministry&submodule=cms&artid=748&mid=40863 ). It also has had global impact as it influenced how we go about planting churches or working with our global mission partners. You may be aware of the books and/or the efforts, but just pass it along as food for thought if you have not.

    Matt, it would be good for you and Russ to post about your respective churches. There are other pastors that lurk on this site and it would be good to hear from them too. It would give us all a chance to hear about the specific work being done and give us an idea of how we can pray for that work.

    For the time being, I’ll lurk and pray about what is presented on the churches you and Russ pastor. Anyone that want’s to lurk and pray along with me, go here: http://www.themercyhouse.com/ (Matt’s church) and
    http://www.oakhillspca.com/ (Russ Ramsey’s church). It could be the one time that lurking is a good thing. 🙂

  17. The Rabbit Room — Ira Glass on Storytelling

    […] This has been floating around the internet for a long time but Joe Thacker recently reposted it on the Hutchmoot page (on Facebook) and we were reminded of what great advice it is–very like the 10,000 hour rule as described by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. […]

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