Monday, January 19, 2009

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

"For unto everyone that hath shall be givine, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." - Matthew 25:29

And thus starts Chapter One of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, the thesis of which debunks that most democratic of myths, the idea of the self-made man, and instead proposes the idea that even in America, privilege and chance count far more than talent in the making of geniuses, professional athletes, and star businessmen. Gladwell examines this idea from two different angles in the two parts of his book.

Part I deals with Gladwell's assertion that it is not the most brilliant or talented people that ultimately succeed; it is those who have been given the most opportunities to do so. He illustrates this fact by examining cases like why most professional hockey players in Canada are born in January (a simple collusion of the junior leagues' cutoff date and the rate at which young boys grow); why some geniuses succeed but not others (contrasting the very different lives of Robert Oppenheimer and an unfortunate but brilliant man named Chris Langan); and why it is a boon to be a Jewish lawyer born in 1935.

In Part II, Gladwell argues that cultural differences are not only very real, they must be taken into account in order to succeed. He looks at the success of the KIPP charter school program, which places poor urban children in school 9 hours per day, 6 days a week, 11 months of the year in an attempt to close the achievement gap; he studies why the airlines of certain countries have had to enforce communication training between captains and first officers to overcome cultural boundaries that threaten aviation safety.

In the end, Gladwell argues that in a truly democratic society, people would not be left to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, allowing those given the most to rise to the top. It would be recognized that those who do succeed do so not only on their own talents but on the enormous opportunities bestowed upon them by society, and there would be sufficient checks in place to ensure that everyone was given those same opportunities.

I've read Malcolm Gladwell's two other books, Blink and The Tipping Point, and I believe that his thesis comes through most clearly in this latest volume. I've found some of his other works difficult to follow, as he tends to jump from example to example without bringing each back to his main argument. In all of his books, Gladwell's talent lies in telling a story. He provides a wealth of interesting and entertaining examples and tries to loosely tie each of them to an overarching thesis. In Outliers, he succeeds.

Gladwell's examples of hockey players, geniuses, Bill Gates, Korean Air, Appalachian feuds, KIPP's success, Jewish attorneys, and his own family's history may not seem to have much in common besides all being interesting stories in their own rights. That Gladwell can weave between them and tie each back to his master argument, that it is not talent but opportunity that determines success, is a testament to his growth as a writer since The Tipping Point.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books in the same vein as Steven Levitt's Freakonomics (read) or Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan (on my list). It is highly entertaining and interesting, and poses some great food for thought for those of us who have enjoyed many of the opportunities Gladwell describes.


Nihil Novum said...

I enjoyed Freakonomics, and I've thought about picking this up. My question is this. Does the book back up its assertions by anything other than a series of anecdotes? The concept is interesting but if it's just cherry-picking success stories, I'm not sure I'm interested in reading it.

Meagan said...

Although he tries to convince us that his thesis can be applied universally, the success stories he uses very neatly fit his theory. His theory that even obstacles (being the son of poor but hardworking Jewish immigrants in 1930s New York) can be opportunities glosses over true obstacles to success that some outliers have surmounted.

To answer your question, no, Gladwell doesn't use any other scientific method other than carefully chosen examples to back up his argument. Though an entertaining book, his argument is probably the weaker for it.

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