Book review – Outliers

Now that I have finally gotten around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I see why people have been telling me for years that I should read the thing!

The book examines story structure, interrogating our ingrained ways of telling and hearing stories about success (and also failure). The big message: what we take to be stories of remarkable individuals are actually stories about the power of opportunity, context, and community.

However, because as a society we celebrate individual achievement, we tend to construct and consume narratives that valorize a particular person’s brilliance, tenacity, and genius. For Gladwell, such ways of narrating success are “profoundly wrong,” and in dismantling these culturally dominant ways of telling, he seeks to call attention to the cultural forces and other factors such as hidden advantages which contribute to successful outcomes, and which tend to be invisibilized in our stories, and thus our understanding. By doing so, he provides a call to action to address lost human potential by bringing our attention to changing the systems and structures that repeatedly advantage, elevate, and enable only certain members of our communities to succeed and keep succeeding.

What resonates most powerfully for me in thinking about how these ideas apply to our Career Linguist community is this idea of the talent that gets squandered when hundreds of linguists internalize failure for not having achieved “success” in the academic job market year after year. Despite the fact that a tenure track job at an R1 institution is demonstrably not the norm for those who gradate with their PhD, it is storied as such, and thus, to take a different path gets storied as going “outside.” Dichotomies of inside/outside get further reinforced when operative systems and structures that do things like provide /limit access and evaluate merit in particular ways are invisibilized. These same professionals are then further stymied by barriers to understanding (their own and that of would-be employers) that would help with bringing linguistics to work in contexts beyond academia. This lost potential exists at the individual, but also the collective level: We can and simply must do better for our field, the challenges of our time demand the talents that linguists uniquely possess.

In this post, I’ll explore a few major themes from Gladwell’s book that inform a discussion about creating and celebrating professional opportunities in our community  …and I promise that I won’t ruin all of the stories from Outliers for you – *although* the book has been out for 10 years now, so it’s not exactly as if this is a spoiler alert!!!

Ultimately, Gladwell’s argument in Outliers is that success is really about opportunity, and that access to opportunity is shaped greatly by context. Including that:

It’s about timing  – turns out that Bill Gates came of age precisely at a crucial moment when programming because more technically interesting (and fun), but he also had access to a terminal when he was a teenager at a time when most college professors of computer science didn’t. He showed up on the scene as a young professional with a tremendous technical advantage and turned out to be pretty much the only person in the world who had his particular quantity and quality of experience.

So, when I think about operationalizing this idea of “when,” I am reminded of the advice to “be here, now” and recognize that there are so many ways that the world of work is changing, such that jobs and ways of working that we have available to us now simply didn’t exist 10 years ago. Putting this reality together with awareness of story, what I see is that we need to be bringing story finding to seek out stories about today’s world of work that simply don’t tend to get told in our community. Our institutions can find and share more stories of linguists who creatively apply their linguistics training in myriad contexts beyond and within the academic one, including – and perhaps especially – those folks who are working in technology in ways that extend beyond computational linguistics.

It’s about (getting opportunities to) practice.  In Outliers, Gladwell points to the (often overlooked) factor in the success of The Beatles as the amount of stage time they got in Hamburg Germany as they were starting out. Turns out, they played for upwards of 8 hours a day and for months at a time.  According to his calculations, this resulted in their having nearly 10,000 hours of playing together before their big break. Not only did this practice make each of them technically better as musicians, it made them better as a band, since it made them better listeners, it expanded their repertoire, it developed their willingness to try things  out and take creative risks because of their awareness and appreciation of their abilities. So too with Bill Gates, crucial time that he spent practicing made the difference when it came to striking out professionally: when you have experience, you get heard as having confidence.

We linguists practice many things over the course of study that make us uniquely suited to be adroit problem solvers and systems-thinkers, as I have explored in many posts here on this blog – including skills cultivated by the study of linguistics – but among these, we are highly skilled in the practice of understanding how language is implicated in the construction of meaning. We learn Saussure in our earliest classes, and then meaning-making becomes like breathing to us, so we forget that we always see multiple aspects of language simultaneously, like for example that it always brings potential for connotative and denotative meanings. Or that we can consider five planes of discourse operational in an interaction. Unlike most users of language, we have analytical distance on it.


Because we recognize that language is a technology that people use to do things, we can be said to “see through” language, always hearing what was said, and at the same time what could have been said but wasn’t. This makes us always aware of underlying assumptions and puts us at a tremendous advantage as critical thinkers. We can see how things are framed and how they might be framed differently, leading us to ask different questions, to bring innovative solutions to problems.

But, when it comes to finding ways to use these skills, it turns  out that where you’re from makes a difference

In the second part of his book, Gladwell explores cultural legacies – including his own, identifying and deconstructing myths even in his own family lore. He considers how factors like language socialization and understandings about power distance give middle class students a leg up in navigating institutions and interacting with people in positions of power, sharing an example of a young boy being coached by his mother to actively pose questions to his doctor. It becomes quickly apparent how – equipped with such skills – young people with greater comfort and practice in asking for things from people in positions of authority will be likelier to get advantages simply by knowing to (and how to) ask for things from people in positions to help them. And that would only compound as they go through life, navigating system after system.

For our own part, I suggest that we need to take seriously that we get socialized to use language in particular ways after spending 6 – 10 years  in the academic system. And crucially, that our ways of claiming expertise as researchers don’t always get heard in the same ways as showing expertise and mastery in other settings beyond academic ones. These include discursive features like hedging “the data seem to show” qualifying and contextualizing claims by providing evidentials or mentioning key collaborators and researchers who influenced our thought. In fact, these very practices can give the exact opposite reading, suggesting uncertainty, the inability to work independently or even resistance to operating quickly when a task demands.

The way forward

Given that only 2% of the population has a PhD  according to the US Census, we can expect that the overwhelming majority of interactions we will have in professional contexts will be with people who have not participated in the same socialization in intensely hierarchical close-knit communities and do not share our ways of talking and hearing the claiming of expertise.

Thus, to realize more of linguists’ potential to bring needed skills to the world (of work), I propose a solution that works at both the individual and collective level.

  • Individuals need to be asking for (and saying yes to) interactions where diverse stories of work get shared – events like networking events and informational interviews.
  • And our Institutions need to be creating more contexts for these stories in the classroom, in departmental communications and events and at professional meetings and conferences.

Further, bringing story listening we can apply an a awareness of story structure to these interactions and use them to ask for stories about work that focus on today (day-to-day) and tomorrow (trends) instead of always beginning with yesterday. Too many of our career storytelling conventions have us looking back: “why did you first choose this path?” “how did you get started? “when did you decide…” but much likelier to catalyze momentum necessary for career navigation will be to engage jobseekers in thinking about direction to the future: “what opportunities do you see now and moving forward for linguists?”  “can you think of other people doing interesting work who I should be reaching out to?” “what resources should I be seeking out?”

Let’s find more stories and start telling them beginning here and now: and here’s to what’s next!

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