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.

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