Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

How do the Great become great?

"Loads of natural talent" some would answer.
"Hard work" others might say.
"The right opportunity" you might hear.
"All of the above" and you'd be right ... according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.

The natural talent matters, but less than you'd think. It turns out that genius-level natural talent isn't extraordinarily rare. And a lot of geniuses live pretty normal lives.

According to Gladwell, these talented people fail to become "outliers" because either they didn't devote the time to developing their talent or because they never had the right opportunities to grow.

The book has fantastic stories, draws sweeping and interesting conclusions and entertains even when digging through hard, dry terrain. Like much of Gladwell's work, Outliers occupies that sweet spot where journalism and psychology. And it has some implications for how I think about ministry.

Devoting the time

This has two implications for us.

Firstly, as someone who works in campus ministry, I read Gladwell's Outliers and thought of the ever-present university conversation about "a liberal arts education" and "specialization."

A classical education covered a broad field: classics as well a math, science as well as philosophy, music as well as history. With the rise of state-funded, research-driven universities, higher ed has become more and more specialized. Students feel tremendous pressure to line up their education with a specific vocational objective.

At first blush, Gladwell's claim that it takes a significant devotion of time to become an "outlier" might seem to support the movement toward specialization. But the numbers don't line up. Gladwell doesn't just say that you need to devote time, he says that you need to devote a ton of time (10,000 hours). That's 40 hours a week, every week ... for 5 years. No breaks. No electives. No major changes. Not going to happen.

This doesn't decide the argument, not by any means. But as someone who not-so-secretly pulls for the liberal arts, it does encourage me.

Secondly (and much more briefly), Gladwell's insight challenges me to focus and focus on the things I want to excel at as a minister (and to be patient). I want to preach well and write well and disciple well. At the rate I'm going, it'll take me 20 years to become great. I need to be okay with that or make some changes.

Providing opportunity

One of the most beautiful elements of Outliers is Gladwell's delicate unwinding of the cultural forces that help the greats become outliers. Family, ethnic grouping, economics ... blind luck. All matter.

We want to build extraordinary followers of Jesus, extraordinary missionaries, extraordinary leaders ... outliers. And so many of the students don't have opportunities. They don't have intact families, don't have strong ethnic identity, don't have money. They go to school in places that don't have a lot of campus ministry activity.

Our presence on campus changes the environment. We provide opportunities to serve and lead and grow that these students wouldn't have otherwise.

And our presence could be a key ingredient God uses to form an outlier for good and truth and beauty in the world.

I would highly recommend this book.

What do you think it takes to make an outlier?

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