Thursday, January 15

Considering "Outliers: The Story of Success"

Freaking Malcolm Gladwell.

I first heard of him this past November, and the more I learned of the man and his ideas, the more I begrudged him. It began with this profile I found on Arts & Letters Daily. Despite the enormous success of his first two books, The Tipping Point and Blink, it was the first time he came to my attention. I didn't think think much of Gladwell one way or another at the time. Still, Arts & Letters kept paying attention to him and his latest book, Outliers, an exploration into the reasons of success. My ire just rose in response as I discovered the lunacy of his ideas and the accolades he attracted. Within weeks I was griping about him more than neo-atheism.

Which makes it all the funnier my parents gave me Outliers for Christmas. My dad heard an interview with him on CBC Radio One. He thought Gladwell sounded interesting.

Thus a fascinating opportunity came unto me. Until that point, all of my rancor was drawn from bitter reviews. Here was a chance to go right to the source, to test my appropriated criticisms. Put in the simplest term, they passed the test.

Gladwell wants to know why people are successful, be they as diverse as The Beatles, Bill Gates, Jewish lawyers and professional hockey players. His conclusion? They attain the highest echelons of success due to circumstances beyond their control, not some natural gift or extra effort on their part.

"Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don't. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all."

Children born into a culture which worked rice paddies have a cultural advantage which values hard work. Being born in the right year could make or break someone trying to enter the ground floor of the personal computer industry. Being born at the beginning of the year confers an incredible advantage to Canadian hockey players.

I agree with this basic thesis. A person is constrained by their circumstances. One will never be first-chair with the Chicago Philharmonic if no one ever gives them a violin. A well-off family can offer their children more options than a poor one. It is a simplistic idea to the point of being blindingly obvious, but I cannot fault it.

Understandably, Gladwell is not content with the mere idea. He wants to push farther and actually apply it. First of all, he wants the successful to admit their dependence upon circumstance and fortune, family and culture. He appreciates Bill Gates for admitting this and reviles Jeb Bush for running as governor of Florida as a "self-made man." I can appreciate this, as well. Were this realization to become more common, it could lead to a more compassionate society, there but for the grace of God go I and all that.

However, Gladwell wants to do even more than that. He wants "[t]o build a better world ... to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that determine success ... with a society that provides opportunities for all." He suggests doubling the number of hockey leagues in Canada, one for those kids born between January and June and one for those born between July and December. This way the age and size difference is shrunk and makes the leagues more competitive. He promotes year-round public schooling, so the poor do not fall behind in learning during the three-month summer break.

Whether one believes these changes would actual level would actually provide opportunities for all, this is about as much as Gladwell can suggest. The remainder of his examples of success are understood entirely ex post facto. One could never adjust society to account for them. Consider this. Gladwell asserts Gates never would have topped the software industry if he had not attended a private school with a computer system most universities of the time lacked. In effect, he succeeded because his family was rich. In this article, Gladwell says Sidney Weinberg became a marvelously successful broker because he was poor. We simply do not know what circumstances will make one successful. For another example, Carnegie and Rockefeller, Gates and Jobs could never have achieved the success they did without being born in a very small span of years which positioned them to best take advantage of new technologies. No amount of societal tinkering will ever account for that.

The second great problem Gladwell faces is his analogical reasoning. The man is incapable of making a point without telling a story. I have no problem with this, in fact it makes for engaging journalism, Gladwell's trade, and some compelling reading. Unfortunately, more often than not, that is the entirety of his reasoning. Some of his conclusions suffer for this. One of Gladwell's foundations for success he calls 'The 10,000 Hour Rule." He claims success is a result of practice and perseverance rather than any innate talent or genius. His primary evidence? The Beatles played 8-hour sets every night for months at a Hamburg club, forcing them to improvise and experiment with new styles. I can buy that instance. However, Gladwell also points out this club was open 24 hours a day, and I am sure more than a few bands were played under the same circumstances. Why have none of their songs become the basis for a movie musical? He has nothing more than a few anecdotes to support his preposterous rule.

By the end of Outliers, Gladwell is little more than an engaging writer. His most ambitious ideas are ill founded, but he makes them comprehensible and interesting. For me, Gladwell ranks alongside the late Michael Crichton: a good read whose most defensible ideas are never more exciting or original than "beware hubris in science."

If this review has failed to convince you his book is not worth the time, do yourself a favor and skip the first chapter. In it Gladwell tells a rambling story of the scientists who determined that the exceedingly good health of Italian immigrants in the Maine town of Roseto was not caused by diet, exercise, genetics or any of the usual suspects but community. Why tell this story? Because he wants to be as important as those researchers. Nothing to do with success whatsoever. I'm surprised they didn't need a smaller font and larger margins to fit his ego onto the page.

If you want to give the man a own chance without first buying one of his books, here is his website. It contains excerpts from all of his publications, a complete archive of his articles for The New Yorker and his blog. If you want to read some real venom pointed his way, check out this review.

Edit (January 29, 2009)

Isaac Chotiner of The New Repbulic agrees with me, too.

Saturday, January 3


I have been a vegetarian for nearly two years now. More precisely, lacto-ovo vegetarian because I like few things more than a quality cheese shop, a breakfast of granola and jelly mixed into plain yogurt and omelets filled with fried onions and celery. For the most part, I have enjoyed being a vegetarian immensely. It has broken old eating habits and meal standards, clearing the way for new ingredients, new recipes and new tastes. I have made extensive use of New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, a cookbook I would have otherwise never considered. I made my first risotto and couscous dishes. Beans are now a regular part of my diet, and I am still just beginning to explore the possibilities in them. Cutting out the meat has cut my grocery bills as well. The only real difficulties have been in the limited vegetarian options at some restaurants (I'm looking at you Outback Steakhouse), and the decision to go vegetarian just months before my semester abroad in Munich and missing out on all of Germany's wonderful meats. Bratwurst, weisswurst, kebab ... it doesn't feel like any less of a mistake in hindsight.

Since I began, the question "Why?" has been posed several times. In the beginning the answer was simple. It was my Lenten sacrifice. Before then meat was a very regular part of my diet. Giving it up was a challenge. After Easter and being meat clean for 40 days I went back to eating meat. A week or two later, I returned to vegetarianism. Had I been more honest when people asked me my reasons during Lent, I would have told them it was a test run to see whether I really could go without meat. The truth was I had been contemplating vegetarianism for some time but had never seen any reason to try it out. After the successful Lent, my direction was pretty well set.

It still strikes me as odd when someone asks me why I am a vegetarian. When I was still in high school, I assumed the only reason one would practice vegetarianism was a concern for animal rights, the desire to minimize animal pain, to not turn cows and chickens into means for an end. It turns out there are a lot of reasons people turn to vegetarianism, and Wikipedia has an impressive list of possiblities. Many people practice varying levels of vegetarianism according to their religion. Buddhists and Jains are probably the most prominent, but Eastern Orthodox fasts can be pretty core. Probably a growing number practice for environmental reasons since producing meat requires so much energy and cows produce so much methane. Some simply cannot afford meat. Some dislike the taste. Some avoid meat for health reasons.

I, however, choose vegetarianism as a form of solidarity. Put in the simplest terms, American levels of meat consumption are not possible on a global scale. In 2000, the average American ate just under four pounds of meat every week. Though I have a lot of faith in science to do amazing things, there is no way the Earth could ever sustain enough cows, pigs and chickens for everyone to eat so much. As China and India and their billions become more affluent and hungry for animal bits, this will become more apparent. I like to say that I will return to a meat diet when it is possible for all the world to eat as much as me. I expect this to be far less than is currently available to the average American.

The interesting thing is, this particular justification for vegetarianism does not preclude all meat consumption. The more reasonable conclusion from this thought process would be flexitarianism, eating a minimal amount of meat. Still, I practice full-blown vegetarianism out of a sense of fairness. It seems wrong to me to enjoy animal flesh while millions of others are happy to get their daily bowl of rice. I know the world is not fair, I know there a lot of other things I could give up which others lack and I know self-denial does nothing for others, but in this instance, I will do what I can to make the world a wee bit more fair.

Still, there are occasions in which I will eat meat, mostly when guest etiquette demands it. If someone prepares a meal without knowing I am a vegetarian or if it is that important to my host, I think it is appropriate to try a little bit of meat. I am still trying to find the perfect balance of these values, but I believe it is the right way to go. A more clear example appeared when I spent a month at the orphanage and education center in Jakarta. I had no problem then with sharing their meals of fish. I figured they were the sort of people with whom I was seeking solidarity. If they could enjoy a little flesh, I could too.

For the curious, I miss hamburgers and pork tenderloin the most. And Oma's rouladen.