Posted by: kshayes513 | December 17, 2011

Reading: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

You just never know what kind of book will become a good worldbuilding resource. I started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success more as a business owner. Long before the end of this commendably short and fluently readable book, I was applying Gladwell’s many questions and paradigms to my two worlds as much as to my business.

Gladwell looks at “success” here mainly as professional success (a question in itself, fellow worldbuilders: what defines “success” in your world? Or does your world even have such a concept?).  And in doing so, he discusses not only the people we consider successful (professional hockey players, big New York law firms, Bill Gates and the other wizards of Silicon Valley). He also discusses people with average lives, whose talents or intelligence would lead our culture to predict that they ought to be successful; and why some groups of immigrants to the US were quickly able to leverage themselves out of the sweatshops and farm fields, while others were not. And he devotes a whole chapter to exactly what it takes for any human being to become really, really good at any one skill, whether it be programming, hockey or music performance.

He also looks at failures, especially when they are endemic and spectacular. One chapter takes apart the cultural anthropology of airline crashes (or is it sociology? I never can keep those two straight!) and how the way specific cultures require social superiors and inferiors to talk to each other can lead to catastrophe. This chapter alone is a perfect read for anyone who is creating a strongly hierarchical society, or perhaps a face-off between characters from a stratified society vs an egalitarian one.  It quotes conversation between superiors and inferiors that might take your dialog subtexts to a whole new level of crossed intentions.

Success, it turns out, is not just a matter of talent and hard work (though of course you do need those ingredients as well). It’s a complex of an enormous range of outside factors, including family and national culture, economic circumstances, luck, the tides of history, and even, sometimes, the month you were born. How those all combine to make the difference between a true Outlier and an average Joe or Jane, makes a fascinating stack of worldbuilding inspiration.

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