I recently read A Little History of the World and Outliers while on a blissful vacation in Cancun, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these first-person narration reads, so I decided to do a joint review of them. I felt that these two books are great to read back to back as they share a common message. Which is this: “History repeats itself in various waves of trends and forms. BUT! That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from these lessons in hope for a better (and hopefully wiser) future that ends in mutual peace and success.”
I learned from these two books that trends happen, for good or bad. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. And it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it either.
A Little History of the World
by Sir Ernest Gombrich
I found myself being pulled into the book as soon as I opened it. Not only does Ernest Gombrich cover the general histories of the Jewish, Greeks, Romans, and their cultures and religions, and the fall and rise of different empires, but also the intimate accounts of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Nero, Napolean, and so many more people that it makes you feel like you’re reading an actual novel. SO much fun to read.
And this book covers a lot of cool facts. Like the fact that the seven days of the week were named after the planets, due to the Babylonians’ and Assyrians’ belief that astrology had fortune tied to Earthly events. That the Phoenicians invented the modern alphabet (A, B, C) 3000 years ago that we are using verbatim to this day. That we shouldn’t get the Grecians and Romans mixed up–Greece is the artsy one, Rome is the more militant one. I also vaguely remembered my studies of Mesopotamia in the 6th grade, but what a delight tying that into the histories of neighboring countries, and with such ease! Grombrich truly does an great job condensing all the superfluous details into one fluid stroke of storytelling. This book is just the opposite of boring and tedious, and I recommend this for an entertaining and informative read.
I also appreciated the epilogue in which Gombrich posed a question to the reader that goes something like this: “Considering that the olden times were universally ruthless and violent, we can acknowledge that we have reached ‘better times.’ But is this the better future that people in the past had once hoped for?” To which Gombrich himself answers: “Asia, Africa, and South America still suffer the poverty and injustice that people in the past once endured, which proves that yes, we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future.”
Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
In this book about success, Gladwell drops big names like Bill Gates, the Beatles, and Joseph Flom, and examines interesting correlations in their success based on the year of birth, race, culture, origin, and so on. Much of it is data analysis in my opinion, but Gladwell does so in the most engaging and intriguing way, while emphasizing one key point: that “opportunity” largely defines one’s success. Let me try to explain the gist of his argument.
Not all geniuses can succeed if their potential is left uncultivated by their environment. What an enlightening point. I always thought how nice it would be if I had photographic memory, but apparently even geniuses can’t succeed if they don’t have the right kind of support such as like money, encouraging parents, people skills, and so on. And Gladwell does a great job asking how people are raising kids and whether they enable children to fulfill their full potential or whether they’re stomping them out.
There IS a “best” time for success. The bulk of most successful Canadian hockey players were born in the months of January, February, and March. The reason why? The cutoff age for accelerated junior teams is January 1st. Which means that the kids born in January, who aren’t more advanced than those born in December that previous month, are thought to be the “better” players just because of their larger physiques (due to age). Thus they’re put on the accelerated teams, they get more experience, and they get exponentially better than those who are only a few months younger than them. Timing counts.
Success is luck. Bill Gates, you know? Gladwell argues that yes, you do need some degree of street-smart and brains to succeed, but people can jump ahead due to the circumstances they were born into. For instance, once you fill up “10,000 hours” of doing something, you will be competent at it, and that applied to Bill Gates. He lived near a software company in an age where such opportunities were very very rare–yet he as a kid had access to it! Then he went to a university that was one of the few in country that was in the software development phase, and he had access to that as well! So from a very young age, he fulfilled “10,000 hours” way before others even started, and that’s what Gladwell refers to as “opportunity.” Or simply put, luck.
IQ is a poor indicator for success. Once you reach a certain level of competency (a certain “threshold”), the likelihood of winning a Nobel Prize is evenly matched–whether you’re a genius from Harvard, or a hard-working person from University of Notre Dame. It’s like basketball players. You need to be tall to be successful, but once you’re decently past that certain point of qualification in height, someone who’s 6’0″ can be be just as or more successful than someone who’s 6’4″. So IQ also means little for success–you just need to overcome a certain threshold.
Now a point of criticim. Ss highly enjoyable Gladwell’s anecdotes were, I often found myself thinking, “Well, isn’t that obvious?” or “that’s a bummer for those who aren’t smart.” Because all he really did was address the situation of geniuses, which does nada for me–I’m not smart or street-smart, so what now? But I did feel that this book was a great call-to-action for people to mind the well-being of others. We generally think that we define our own personal success, but Gladwell suggests otherwise. That perhaps we CAN’T succeed by our own strengths. We need the right people and environment around us to succeed, and Gladwell seems to be prompting his readers to not only think of ourselves, but to help others around us to succeed.