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Book Of The Week: Outliers, By Malcolm Gladwell
Friday 21 November 2008
In 1904, a German professor of economics went back to work after a long bout of depression. He began to publish a series of essays about the links between a community, its core beliefs, and material success. Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism not only unleashed a century of debate and dispute. It more or less created the sociology of culture as a study of the interplay between individual actions and collective values – irrespective of whether his heirs agreed that (say) the Calvinist faith gave merchants an edge on the exchange. A man whose own inner torments had forced him to bail out from an ultra-competitive arena helped the 20th century to understand that high achievements often have roots that extend deeper and wider than personal drive and skill.
It was another pioneer sociologist (Karl Marx) who wrote that "all great events and personalities in world history reappear... The first time as tragedy, the second as farce". Well, if not farce – then at least as chart-topping bestsellers. With The Tipping Point and Blink, the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell rode in on the breezes of the Zeitgeist to deliver genial and readable rag-bags of pre-digested research. The first book, released in 2000 but gaining mass cult status a little later, slaked a post-millennial hunger for stories of (in the strict sense) catastrophic change that swiftly turns small increments into epic events. In 2005, Blink tickled the fancy of an anti-authority, DIY era to justify the hunches and instincts which show that true expertise lies within. Always stronger with anecdote than analysis, Gladwell wrote with a beguiling charm and pace that skipped over chasms of logic and helped disguise the scatter-gun habits of his thought.
Outliers, his "story of success", never mentions Weber, although US social thinkers in his vein (Robert Merton, C Wright Mills) do pop up in the odd footnote. Yet, just like his invisible forerunner, Gladwell seeks to show that individual fame and fortune is "grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances". He argues that "no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone".
In front of the bullet-point, 12-step, bootstrap-pulling market who devoured his books as self-help primers, he shakes the iron fist of determinism. Outliers mostly seems to argue: choose the right parents, the right people and the right period if you truly seek to shine. For an Obama-voting nation (and it assumes a US readership) that has just rediscovered the economic limits of free will, it looks as if Gladwell has again snared the spirit of his age. He voices a timely scorn for "the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made". Yet it turns out that this bitter, unAmerican pill comes deftly spun in sugar.
As always, Gladwell scuttles around his chosen field like a distracted crab on speed. We begin, bizarrely, with the long, healthy lives of migrant Italians in a Pennsylvania town – proof of the protective strength of close community, but a study of longevity more than of success. Then we learn how given circumstances may make or break individual talent. Arbitrary birth-date rules for each cohort decide whether young Canadians become ice hockey stars or also-rans (also-slids?). In a flash, we're growing up with young Bill Gates, sharing his nine crucial early advantages – from the future Microsoft mogul's access to real-time computing aged just 13 to his long nights programming for free at the University of Washington. They illustrate the point that every virtuoso needs roughly 10,000 hours of practice to excel.
After a brief interlude with the Beatles in Hamburg, strumming away in strip clubs eight days a week (OK, seven) to clock up their 10,000 hours, we meet two contrasting "geniuses". With his broken home and lack of social savvy, TV quiz-show star Chris Langan never grabbed the breaks to make the best of a beyond-Einstein IQ. But atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer parlayed his elite-family confidence into an ability to play the system and catch the glittering prizes.
A California study proves that the long-term career success of a group of equally "gifted" children depends far more on class, nurture and family than sheer intelligence. Not for the first time, you wonder why Gladwell does not yet hold a tenured professorship at the University of the Bleedin' Obvious. Yes, he's right, but too often in a trivial, short-winded and centrifugal style.
Time and again, Gladwell writes against a cornball caricature of can-do Americanism. This pure voluntarist dogma figures as a straw man he never tires of knocking down. Not only has no European ever credited it, but I doubt if any of the 67 million US voters who chose Obama has either. "Outliers are those who have been given opportunities," he repeats, "and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them".
That crucial qualifier sweetens the deterministic medicine. When he switches from advantages of birth or access to shared values, Gladwell softly starts to claim that well-motivated marginals can overcome adversity. Self-help makes a tentative comeback. Looking at New York's Depression-era Jews, he shows - with a dose of communitarian schmaltz - how social cohesion and accidents of age bred a generation of hot-shot corporate lawyers and rag-trade entrepreneurs.
Later sections try to prove that a specific cultural "legacy" can ease or block the path to success. A long excursion into the "ethnic" factors behind Korean and Colombian air crashes exposes his extreme naiviety when it comes to single-factor explanations. In this case, it's the "Power-Distance Index", which aims to rank countries according to their levels of deference. So we understand that huge differences separate Belgians and Danes, "going back hundreds and hundreds of years". Belgium came into existence in 1831. In this model, Austrians rate as the most collegiate, egalitarian folk on earth. Gladwell's blind trust in these one-trick sources beggars belief.
His flakiness about history and geography grows more marked. Outliers baldly ascribes a supposedly vengeful "honour" culture in the South to the blood-feud violence inherited from the British "borderlands". (That includes Ulster, which is "in Northern Ireland".) So is ancestry or locality responsible? The first on p.170; the second on p.174.
Trying to account for the excellence of "Asian" students in maths (he refers only to east Asians), Gladwell manages areverse-Weber manoeuvre. He contrasts the habits of good work and initiative bred by high-skill rice-farming to the sullen torpor of European peasants who, it seems, all "worked as low-paid slaves of an aristocratic landlord". His only example relates to Russian serfdom. Such crude and silly generalisations pepper Outliers.
Gladwell's coda does movingly show how his own family tiptoed through the quicksands of colour prejudice in Jamaica to take full advantage of their slender opportunities under colonial rule. The island's nuances of class and race grip him, and so grip us. If only the Northumbrians or Appalachians he stereotypes so crassly had enjoyed the same authorial respect. But they never had the "demographic luck" of place, period and position that converts mere talent into triumph – and which makes this book such an outlying example of the case it seeks to make.
Macolm Gladwell: a story of success
Born in England in 1963 but raised in rural Canada, Gladwell is the son of an English father and a Jamaican mother. He tells her story in 'Outliers', which looks for the preconditions of success in cases from Bill Gates to The Beatles (left). A history graduate from the University of Toronto, he worked for a decade as a 'Washington Post' reporter, writing on science and business. In 1996, he joined the 'New Yorker' magazine. After a slow-burn start, his first book, 'The Tipping Point' (2000), lived up to its thesis by suddenly becoming a must-have manual for hip thinkers and confused executives alike. Five years later, 'Blink', another number-one bestseller, explored 'the power of thinking without thinking'. In 2005, 'Time' named him one of its '100 most influential people'. As a public speaker, Gladwell can command fees of tens of thousands of dollars, but often performs gratis. He has received awards from both the American Psychological Association and American Sociological Association.
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