February 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell

By Zora Simic

Perhaps by virtue of his own accomplishments, Malcolm Gladwell – author of bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink, writer for the New Yorker, and well-paid speaker and guru – has a vested interest in the topic of success. Yet, in publicity for his latest book, Gladwell has resisted calling himself an outlier, formally defined as “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body”. In this category he places Bill Gates, elite sportspeople, nuclear scientists, The Beatles, the highest-paid lawyers and mathematical geniuses. As a starting point, Gladwell wants to comprehend their level of success. What makes it happen? And how can we ensure that it happens more often? As such, Gladwell has declared Outliers an anti-selfhelp book: he wants to remedy society, not the individual.

Given Gladwell’s ambitious task, and the energy with which he applies himself to it, his central thesis is rather pedestrian: success is never the result of talent alone. Outliers “reach their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage”. They are made, not born, though Gladwell throws some cultural determinism – what he benignly calls “cultural legacies” – into the mix of ingredients that produces success or failure. So it follows that an exceptional IQ is no guarantee of success if you are born into a class that does not equip you with the skills to reap the benefits of it (as with the “genius” Christopher Langan, who won a quiz show but dropped out of university). More contentiously, Gladwell draws on “research” to suggest that some Asian students are predisposed to do well at maths because of the “cultural legacy” of cultivating rice paddies. Or that Korean pilots were for a time more likely to crash an aeroplane because they were products of a hierarchical culture incompatible with cockpit politics.

To give him his due, Gladwell is too clever to write as a mere provocateur. The engaging and sincere manner in which he presents his cases makes it difficult to dismiss even his most flimsy conclusions. Gladwell also applies the theories to his own family history, a nice final touch, though not the one I found myself craving. In the end, his tentative discussion of cultural inheritance does not jar nearly as much as his narrow definition of success.

From the front page

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

In This Issue

The comeback kid

Eddie Perfect’s ‘Shane Warne: The Musical’

Boxing for Palm Island

Gone with the wind

An Australian fiasco

‘The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty’ by Peter Singer

More in Arts & Letters

Still from ‘Men’

Fear as folk: ‘Men’

Writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film is an unsubtle but ambitious pastoral horror, mixing the Christian with the classical

Illustration by Jeff Fisher


Image of Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020. Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

Image of Daniel Boyd, ‘Untitled (TBOMB)’, 2020

Mission statement: Daniel Boyd’s ‘Treasure Island’

An AGNSW exhibition traces the development of the Indigenous artist’s idiosyncratic technique, which questions ideas of perception

More in Noted

Cover of ‘Trust’


The American novelist Hernan Diaz audits the silence of great wealth in a story of four parts presented as novel, autobiography, memoir and diary

Still from ‘Irma Vep’

‘Irma Vep’

Olivier Assayas revisits his 1996 film in a delicious palindromic limited series, in which a frazzled director remakes his ‘Irma Vep’ film into a TV series

Cover image of Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’


The powerful debut novel from Irish author Louise Kennedy is a masterclass in emotional compression

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime