The Magazine


Malcolm Gladwell, explainer.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown, 320 pp., $27.99

Malcolm Gladwell is a slender man, in his mid-forties yet still youthful-
looking, sporting an afro gone haywire, as if he had just put his finger in a live electrical socket. The effect is to make him resemble nothing so much as a Jack-in-the-Box. Like a Jack-in-the-Box, he pops up here (on C-SPAN), there (on YouTube), and everywhere (giving, it is reported, talks to corporations for impressively large fees). Yet Jack-in-the-Box isn't quite right. What Gladwell, whose stock in trade is to challenge what he takes to be received opinions and conventional wisdom, prefers to present himself as is, in one of the reigning clichés of our day, an "out-of-the-box" thinker. He is, one might say, our very own Jack-out-of-the-Box.

A Village Explainer par excellence, Gladwell will tell you how Hush Puppies shoes came back into style, why Korean airline pilots had such a dismal flight record, what causes policemen to lose it and shoot innocent men, and ever so much more. A strong appetite must exist for such explanations as he provides, for all three of his books--The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), and now Outliers (2008)--have been immensely successful, lounging for weeks and weeks atop the New York Times and other bestseller lists. Perhaps it requires another Village Explainer to account for this remarkable success.

Explanation of the kind that Malcolm Gladwell specializes in is evidently reassuring. The point of explanation is to make the world seem more intelligible. T.S. Eliot said that humankind cannot bear too much reality, but in a secular age it seems able to stand mystery even less. In his books Gladwell nicely eases the mystery out of life by informing his readers how, as he understands it, the world really works: And it works, if he is to be believed, quite rationally, if one will only stop and think about it. The happy news is, if you find Gladwell's various explanations persuasive, not only are the clouds of mystery gone but the sunshine of infinite promise glows in the sky high above. Everything depends, of course, on whether you find his explanations genuinely persuasive.

The Gladwellian method is by now well established, if not formulaic. He takes a received opinion--the superiority of young Chinese at mathematics, say--sets out the conventional wisdom on the subject, and then refutes this wisdom with the aid of anecdotes backed up by one or another social-scientific study. Gladwell does social science--second-hand social science, really--with a twist: The twist is that he uses it inevitably to supply happy endings. Attend to his instruction and you, too, can spot trends, think more clearly under pressure, and now, with
Outliers, increase your chances to achieve an impressive success.

"In Outliers," Gladwell writes, "I want to convince you that .  .  . personal explanations of success don't work." People who enjoy resounding successes, he holds, "are invariably the 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." In the understanding of what lies behind success, Gladwell's position is that nurture (the social conditions surrounding one) is much more important than nature (one's intrinsic, or God-given, talents and character).

Gladwell's methods in this book remain much as in his two earlier books. He tells anecdotes supported by social-science research, all written up in prose that Richard Posner, in a devastating review of Blink in the New Republic that demonstrates the thinness of Gladwell's use of social-science research, characterized as "for people who do not read books." Gladwell's is a prose accessible, mildly charming, with all sense of intellectual struggle or conflict neatly removed: a good read, in the cant phrase.

Gladwell often sets up his reports on psychological or social-scientific research with piquant thumbnail sketches. Tall, wearing three earrings and a metal plate in his head, availing himself of profanity of a kind that would make an Algerian camel driver blush, Zack Zipperman, Ph.D. has for the past 26 years, in his windowless laboratory at MIT, been teaching white mice to dance the cha-cha-cha, with interesting results for those who can't comprehend why men born after 1942 never carry handkerchiefs. I parody, but not that wildly.