Mar 092013

I’ve been on a fiction kick for the past decade, devouring everything from Harry Potter to Oprah’s latest picks, occasionally dabbling in really trashy fluff such as Fifty Shades of Grey.

When I started reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, it was a bit of a shock to the system, being my first non-fiction read in quite a while. I’m about three-quarters of the way through this one, and while the message is intriguing, there’s something wrong.

Here’s an official description of “Outliers” culled from Amazon:

In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers” — the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.

So what could be wrong with that? The problem, in my opinion, is that Gladwell has written a book in which he endeavours to demystify the secret(s) of success without defining what he means by the word “success”.

From what I’ve read so far, I gather Gladwell’s idea of what makes a person “successful” involves an uncertain blend of education, wealth, and/or fame. Seriously, is a person only “successful” if they have obtained a university degree? Is a person only “successful” if their annual income has risen above 6 or 7 figures? Is a person only “successful” if they have acquired a particular size of house and/or quantity and quality of material possessions? Is a person only “successful” if they have obtained a certain degree of notoriety?

As I mentioned, I’m only three-quarters of the way through Outliers, so perhaps the things that actually matter to me may yet be mentioned, albeit near the end (if at all) once the allegedly important aspects of superficial “success” have been covered.

So what matters to me? For a start, I value health above wealth, well-being above fame, and happiness above Harry Rosen suits and Ferraris. Moreover, I believe the source of an individual’s wealth is a critical factor in our increasingly resource-depleted world. In other words, no person whose profits depend upon plundering, exploiting, or polluting could, in any rational sense of the word, be a “success”. I am in full agreement with motivational speaker Zig Ziglar that success is a personal rather than superficial standard:

Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is the doing, not the getting; in the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard, reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be.

Bottom line: any book that endeavours to explain the secret(s) of success without bothering to define success is fundamentally flawed.