The book: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
Outliers is Malcolm Gladwell’s collection of essays about our culture’s misunderstanding of success. The thesis of this book is that people don’t become outliers (superstars, success stories, etc) just because they are more hard-working or inherently more outstanding than others. Instead, he argues, success is the result of many different forces – including opportunity, coincidence, and cultural background – fortuitously coming together. Each essay features an outlier or group of outliers (including Canadian hockey stars, Bill Gates, and successful NYC lawyers), and demonstrates how their success is the product of much more than just their talents.
The best thing about Outliers is probably the compelling writing style of Malcolm Gladwell. Essays can be dry or pedantic, but the essays in Outliers are easy to digest, un-intimidating, and at times page-turning. This is because Gladwell uses accessible language, while also providing interesting backstories, dialogues, and personal anecdotes. The stories almost read like a podcast (especially if you’ve listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History). Even when Gladwell is being redundant (which he is when he really wants to drive home a point), the stories are engaging.
The only problem with Outliers is that, in 2019, Gladwell’s thesis (that success is more than just the product of talent and/or hard-work) is no longer groundbreaking. I can think of few people, especially people in my generation, who would need a 278-page book to tell them that opportunities afforded by class, race, or sheer chance play a huge role in who becomes successful and who doesn’t. That being said, Outliers is still an engaging and enjoyable read. (Edit, after thinking about a comment on this post: there probably are many Americans who would benefit from reading a book like Outliers – my idea that Gladwell’s message is common knowledge is naive at best, and ignorant at worst).
The bake: earl grey tea cake.
Although I enjoyed reading Outliers, it really didn’t inspire any bakes. Finally, I decided to just bake something that I’ve wanted to make for a while now. At some level, shouldn’t Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of outliers apply to baking something exceptional? I think that baking a show-stopping dessert takes more than just talent and hard work. It also takes time (which is a luxury not everybody has), money (or at least enough money to afford baking as a hobby), and of course…some baking magic.
With that in mind, I decided to bake this earl grey tea cake that’s been in my bookmarks for months now. I normally tend to modify recipes (with varying degrees of luck), but I followed this one strictly. With three components to make (the cake itself, a syrup, and Swiss buttercream frosting), this cake is pretty elaborate and time-consuming. But the work can be split into multiple days by making the cake ahead of time and freezing it until you’re ready to make the frosting (I did this and learned that it’s much easier to frost a frozen cake than a fresh one).
As for the taste of the cake…it’s phenomenal. I tip my (metaphorical) hat 6,834,798 times to Teresa Huff for constructing this piece of magic and sharing her story of success. The cake has the distinctive flavor of earl grey, which goes perfectly with the raspberry jam filling. The frosting is light and not excessively sweet, allowing the flavor of the cake and filling to shine. All in all…it is an outlier.