Malcolm Gladwell’s two humongous best sellers, “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” share a shake-and-bake recipe that helps explain their popularity. Both popularize scientific, sociological and psychological theories in a fashion that makes for lively water-cooler chatter about Big Intriguing Concepts: “The Tipping Point” promotes the notion that ideas and fads spread in much the same way as infectious diseases do, while “Blink” theorizes that gut instincts and snap judgments can be every bit as good as decisions made more methodically. Both books are filled with colorful anecdotes and case studies that read like entertaining little stories. Both use PowerPoint-type catchphrases (like the “stickiness factor” and “the Rule of 150”) to plant concepts in the reader’s mind. And both project a sort of self-help chirpiness, which implies that they are giving the reader useful new insights into the workings of everyday life.
“Outliers,” Mr. Gladwell’s latest book, employs this same recipe, but does so in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology. The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people — like Bill Gates and the Beatles — are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing.
Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.
Citing what Robert Merton called the “Matthew Effect” (after the New Testament verse that goes, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”), Mr. Gladwell suggests that children from wealthy or middle-class backgrounds are much more likely to succeed than those from impoverished ones. He describes a study, begun in the 1920s by a professor of psychology named Lewis Terman, that tracked a group of gifted children and found, in Mr. Gladwell’s words, that “almost none of the genius children from the lowest social and economic class ended up making a name for themselves.”
In addition, Mr. Gladwell compares the failure of a man named Chris Langan — who reportedly has a genius-level IQ of 195 and who came from a poor, dysfunctional family — to capitalize on his gifts with the success enjoyed by the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who “was a child with a mind very much like Chris Langan’s” but whose wealthy, privileged childhood helped give him “the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world.” Why use these two men as examples? Purely, it seems, because Mr. Langan’s life story made Mr. Gladwell think of the life of Mr. Oppenheimer.
To Mr. Gladwell the stories of the Beatles and Bill Gates are also distinguished not by “their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities.” The Beatles became the Beatles, he suggests, because they happened to be invited, repeatedly, to Hamburg, Germany, where they had to perform many hours an evening for many nights — practice time that enabled them to hone their craft. Mr. Gladwell does not explain why other groups, who practiced as much as the Beatles, never became one of the seminal rock groups of all time, or why groups like the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys, who didn’t play as many Hamburg shows as the Beatles, also went on to shape music history.Continue reading the main story
Published in 2008, Outliers: The Story of Success is Malcolm Gladwell’s third consecutive best-selling nonfiction book, following Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005). While Tipping Point focuses on the individual’s ability to effect change in society, Outliers deals with the cultural and societal forces that give rise to opportunistic individuals. Through a series of case studies, Gladwell insists that we have all too easily bought into the myth that successful people are self-made; instead, he says they “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Gladwell defines an outlier as a person out of the ordinary “who doesn't fit into our normal understanding of achievement.” According to Gladwell, great men and women are beneficiaries of specialization, collaboration, time, place, and culture. An outlier’s recipe for success is not personal mythos but the synthesis of opportunity and time on task.
Framed around the biblical parable of the talents, or “The Matthew Effect,” Part One examines opportunity as a function of timing. Canadian hockey players born closer to the magic birthday of January 1 reap advantages that compound over time. Likewise, computer programmers Bill Joy and Bill Gates, both born in the 1950s, have taken advantage of the relative-age effect to become industry giants in the 1980s. Gladwell not only debunks the romantic mystique of self-determinism, but also the myth that genius is born, not made. He claims that Mozart and The Beatles are not so much innate musical prodigies but grinders who thrived only after 10,000 hours of practice.
Part Two of Outliers focuses on cultural legacies, which Gladwell says “persist, generation after generation, virtually intact...and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them." Gladwell is more eclectic here, and he examines both success and failure. He deftly moves from the dooming “culture of honor” in Appalachia to the rice paddy cultivation in China that fosters patient problem solving. Gladwell is at his best when he illustrates how a cultural legacy of failure can be transformed into one of success. Korean airlines, once very likely to crash their planes because of rigid power structures among pilots, have since fostered collaboration in the cockpit and, therefore, attained high safety ratings.
Though Outliers has continued Gladwell’s own success, critics have cited the book as being obvious, anecdotal, New York-centric, and too focused on nurture over nature—all to the point of political correctness. As Max Ross of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes, “Gladwell never questions that the foundations of success are hard work, ambition and ability. He is simply adding a hurdle: To attain success, these values must be placed in an agreeable tempora l and societal context.” Regardless of his critics, Gladwell empowers the public to feel worthy of rubbing elbows with the elite, provided of course they put in their 10,000 hours first.