Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"

I read Malcolm Gladwell's latest book - called "Outliers" - on a flight a couple of days ago and thought I would share some thoughts on it.

The book is primarily concerned with what makes great people - or outliers - so great. What made the Beatles so good? What makes East Asians so good at math? Why do some people simply lie outside the bounds of what we would all consider "normal" human experience? Put differently, why are some people "outliers"?

Gladwell's proposition on this question is remarkably unremarkable. He purports to arguing against the set of people who claim that extraordinarily successful people are simply extraordinarily talented, and seeks to imbue in these discussions the idea that opportunities play a major role - as big a role as the talent itself. It's not you who makes you what you are, Gladwell says, but everything around you that makes you what you are. As he says in an interview, “I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be.”

The problem with this is that no serious person makes the claim that success is only or even largely to do with talent, or that you can be whatever you want to be. When Gladwell argues against such an idea, he is essentially arguing against a strawman. We know that Michael Jordan was incredibly lucky to be able to hone his off-the-charts talent at North Carolina. We know that the type of environment a child grows up in is highly likely to affect his or her intelligence, ability to problem-solve, and grades at school. In short, we know opportunity matters. When reading this book, one is left with a sense of "Yeah...so what?"

That does not mean it is not worth a read, or a purchase. Because the book is written by Malcolm Gladwell, who remains in my view the single best writer in non-academic publishing, the book is highly enjoyable. As he is wont to do, he throws in fascinating nuggets and stories that either make you shake your head or smile to yourself for a solid five minutes (his chapter on the reasons behind Korean air-crashes is particularly good). And the book has a singular theme and argument to it in a way that "The Tipping Point" (his first book) did not.

There are many good reasons to buy or read "Outliers". An earth-shattering insight into what makes people successful is not one of them.

1 comment:

icarus said...

In the vein of the obvious that you say the book is written in, it would also be prudent to note that not all outliers are successes. Psychological disorders, criminal records, and just an abject lack of ability, weakness of will among other factors make people outlying failures as much as they make others successful. Lacking statistical data on the issue, I can only say anecdotally that people on the “fringes” of society rarely become shining examples of whatever it is that they pursue as so much time and energy is spent negotiating the social, economic and therefore political chasm between themselves and mainstream society. The irony, then, is that outliers are often outlying successes if they assimilate into the mainstream or engage it effectively.