Malcolm Gladwell is an outlier – someone whose achievements fall outside the boundaries of the norm.
He is an extraordinarily successful author and public speaker who has made a name for himself by making people think about the world a little differently with his unconventional, counterintuitive takes on research in the social sciences.
In “The Tipping Point” (2000), Gladwell explored how social epidemics work – what makes an idea or trend take hold – while in “Blink” (2005) his focus was on snap decisions, “the power of thinking without thinking.”
In his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell presents some surprising observations about factors he believes separate hyper-achievers from the rest of us.
Like most highly successful people, Gladwell is skilled, talented, and driven. His particular gift is the ability to see common social phenomena from an unexpected angle and to convey his insights in enormously engaging anecdotes and analysis.
But, according to the argument he makes in “Outliers,” these personal traits only go so far in explaining his impressive achievements.
Successful people, he avows, are “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. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.... It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”
Put differently, “Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage.’ ”
One such advantage is the luck of a propitious birthday – being born at the right time. Gladwell notes the preponderance of winter birthdays in the Canadian Hockey League. That’s because the cutoff date for peewee hockey is Jan. 1.
A similar skew occurs in American baseball: Because the Little League cutoff date is July 31, more major leaguers are born in August than any other month. With young boys, a few months can make an enormous difference in size and development – so the rosters are filled with older, bigger kids, “confusing maturity with ability.”
These players get more practice, widening their advantage over those who don’t make the first cut. Gladwell rues the wasted talent that could be tapped if there were a pee-wee league for each half of the year.
Year of birth can be even more important. Examining a list of the 75 richest people in the history of the world, Gladwell notes that “an astonishing 14 are Americans born within nine years of one another in the mid-19th century.”
Why? Because “In the 1860s and 1870s, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest transformation in its history” with the emergence of Wall Street and expansion of railroads. People such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan were the right age to take advantage of this transformation.
Similarly, Gladwell considers the outsized success of Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and Steve Jobs – all born in 1954 and 1955, ripe for “the dawn of the personal computer age” in 1975.
Of course birthdays don’t tell the whole story.
Bill Gates, for example, had the advantage of unlimited access to a computer at his affluent private school starting in 1968, when he was in eighth grade. By the time he graduated, he had logged far more time programming than the 10,000 hours that Gladwell flags as the threshold that separates true experts from mere adepts in most fields.
“Outliers” is a how-they-succeeded rather than a how-to-succeed manual.
Gladwell’s arguments aren’t airtight. His theories raise chicken-and-egg questions about which came first, talent or opportunity, and don’t explain why some people take full advantage of opportunities while others do not.
By downplaying the importance of ability or merit in favor of cultural influences, Gladwell not only cheats successful people of full credit for their focus and drive, but, perhaps comfortingly, absolves individuals of some of the responsibility for their failures.
Thought-provoking, entertaining, and irresistibly debatable, “Outliers” offers lively stories about an unexpected range of exceptional people – Korean airline pilots, New York litigators, immigrant garment workers, Asian math whizzes, low-achievers with high IQs, and, for good measure, Gladwell’s Jamaican grandmother.
Overall, it’s another winner from this agile social observer.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.