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.

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