22 January 2013

Uganda: The Outliers' Secret to Good Life

book review

In his latest-to-reach-us book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, author of best-selling The Tipping Point, tells a story in the introduction. At the end of the 19th century, a small town in southern Italy, called Roseto, gradually emigrated to the United States and set up another community, also called Roseto, in Pennsylvania.

A doctor, Stuart Wolf, used to go nearby for his holidays and he came to notice one thing, that the incidence of heart disease was much lower here than in the surrounding towns and roughly half that of the United States' as a whole. Wolf brought in a friend of his, John Bruhn, a sociologist.

They went from house to house and talked to every adult. There had been no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and very little crime. No-one was on welfare; no-one even had peptic ulcers. These people were dying of old age. That was it. Wolf's profession had a name for a place like Roseto - a place that lay outside everyday experience, where the normal rules did not apply. Roseto was an "outlier".

What Wolf came to realize was that the secret of Roseto wasn't diet or exercise or genes or location. It was Roseto itself: people visited one another, stopped to chat in the street, cooked for one another in the backyards; many houses had three generations living under one roof, and grandparents commanded respect.

The parish church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, had a unifying and calming effect. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under two thousand people. The community had an egalitarian ethos, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the less successful obscure their failures.

The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves, protected from the pressures of modern society. Lesson One of this book: the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.

The rest of the book is a series of stories and lessons on how to achieve success. It's a book about men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary, but which any of us could also do. What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they're like, their personalities, their intelligence, their lifestyles, their special talents.

But Outliers tells us that people don't just rise from nothing, as if effortlessly, as if Lady Luck came their way, and languidly they reached out to her. He tells us that Mozart and the Beatles worked thousands of hours to be successful. He questions that Mozart was already composing at the age of six; no, he says, he was practising and started writing music at twenty.

Other outliers had the advantage of opportunity, or of cultural background. But always they had to work hard, and find a niche or grab the chance when it came. A must-read.

Book: Outliers

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Back Bay Books, 2008

Volume: 365 pages

Cost: Shs 36,000

Reviewer: Martyn Drakard

Available from Aristoc

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