The Magazine

Jack-Out-of-the-Box

Malcolm Gladwell, explainer.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Outliers

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.

The true target of attack in Outliers is the notion "that success is a function of individual merit, and that the world we all grow up in and the rules we choose to write as a society don't matter at all." (I don't, incidentally, know anyone who would say that the context of individual success, the environment in which it takes place, is negligible, but let's allow that straw man to stand.) "The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play," Gladwell writes. When one was born, into which ethnic group or social class, and under what cultural conditions, in Gladwell's pages everywhere trumps any natural aptitude or extraordinary savvy a person might have. "Outliers," according to Gladwell, "are those who have been given opportunities--and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them."

Gladwell argues, for example, that Bill Gates wouldn't have been the success he is today if he hadn't been born wealthy and sent to a private school that could afford him unlimited time to work on a mainframe computer, where he learned and mastered his trade. Yet Steve Jobs, if I have his biography correct, came from a broken home, grew up with adoptive parents, and scored a success quite as considerable as Gates's by hanging around nearby Hewlett-Packard where he attended lectures and got a summer job and managed to learn from fellow employees.

No one would argue that when a person was born is unimportant in determining his career. But in Outliers
Gladwell makes it seem crucial. (I should say where one was born might be even more significant: Had Steve Jobs been born in Detroit, he might today have been an automotive designer; had I, whose birth date is 1937, been born in Europe I should, like as not, have gone to the gas chambers as a child.) Outliers begins with a consideration of the fact that so many successful Canadian hockey players seem to have been born in January, February, or March. The reason is that, in the Canadian equivalent of Little League, the early deadline for players is January, and those born nearer to the beginning of the year have, in the early years of life, a distinct advantage of physical maturity over those born later in the year. Gladwell contends that this advantage aggregates over the years, and on a chart--he tends to be big on charts; they give that old secure social-science feel--shows that a large number of Canadian professional hockey players were also born early in the year of their respective births.

Something to it, perhaps, but not all that much. Athletic ability tends to even out over time, and in my experience, talent will show, and so will physical gifts. Michael Jordan, who came into his full height relatively late in his youth, could see the entire basketball court more clearly than any player of his or perhaps any other time; the quarterback Brett Favre has physical courage of a kind that date of birth, culture, or anything else can't explain; the pitcher Greg Maddux has the gift of athletic intelligence (he doesn't make mistakes) that has more than compensated for his less than astounding physical attributes; and for all I know all three of these magnificent athletes may have been born on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Gladwell notes that people born between 1935 and 1945--before, that is, the Baby Boom--were fortunate in belonging to the 20th century's smallest birth cohort, owing to the Depression. The advantage in this is that college admissions were easier for them, fewer people being around to apply for the many openings available. Yet for all its advantages, I would add, this generation, of which I happen to be a member, has never put a president in the White House. Go figure.

Gladwell also remarks on the advantage of New York Jewish lawyers born around 1930 who, because anti-Semitism kept them out of white-shoe firms, turned their attention to cases entailing proxy fights with hostile takeovers and the litigation that followed from them. These cases later became among the most lucrative in legal work. Date of birth, once again, if Gladwell is to be believed, is destiny.

But long practice at one's line of work is no less important. The chief reason for the Beatles' smashing success, Gladwell holds, is that, when they first set out, they worked in the strip joints of Hamburg, where they played six- and eight-hour stretches every day, strumming and drumming their way to international success. No doubt, all this time that the Beatles had to work up their songs, to meld their various talents, was a great help. But they also happen to have had, in Paul McCartney and John Lennon, two immensely gifted songwriters along with a fortunate--and no doubt fortuitous--combination of personalities and talents who, together, comprised the astonishingly successful group. Eliminate Lennon, eliminate McCartney--poof! The Beatles are just four more working-class kids hoping to win the rock 'n' roll lottery.

With his penchant for precise formulation, Gladwell sets out the 10,000-Hour Rule required for success in any field of endeavor, be it computer programming, hockey, classical music, mathematics, what have you. His false precision aside, who would argue against the notion that practice, if it does not always make perfect, helps? But what Gladwell leaves out are the elements of passion and desire that sustain an athlete, an artist, a scientist in the loneliness of his relentless practicing.

For three decades I taught courses in prose style to students who, by taking the course, had in effect announced their interest in becoming writers. Some were immensely impressive in their talent--much more talented than I at their age. Yet many of the most talented among them washed out, drifting off, perhaps happily enough, into other kinds of work, settling for the consolations of security, marriage, family life, for all I know excessive venery. Why? Not, I think, for want of practicing--for failing to put in Malcolm Gladwell's requisite 10,000 hours--but for want of desire. They didn't want to be writers strongly enough. Whence does desire derive? I don't know, and neither, I venture to say, does Gladwell. Nor would a full battalion of scientists or social scientists in white coats armed with plush research grants be likely to find out. In the realm of desire, we are in the presence of a mystery and have no choice but to live with it.

Cultural background is another crucial determinant in Malcolm Gladwell's kit of handy explanations. Nobody doubts that being Jewish, French, Chinese, Mexican, Swedish, Indian, etc., brings with it its own rich mental cargo. A person's ethnicity and nationality are always worth inquiring about, and are often of the greatest interest. The tendency is to dismiss such inquiries, because their history has been fraught with prejudice, treating the inquiries themselves as potentially dangerous.

Gladwell, understanding this, suggests that we need to get over it if we are to recognize that taking cultural background into consideration can be of the utmost importance. His first example of this is the deference culture of Koreans, which he believes was for many years responsible for the poor record of Korean airline pilots. Copilots were too deferential to their superiors, the pilots, and they were also too deferential in dealing with control tower personnel, often noted for their no-nonsense aggressiveness, at such places as LaGuardia Airport, for example.

Through reprinting snippets from the recovered black-box conversation of a Colombian airlines (Colombia is another deference culture) copilot with both his pilot and the LaGuardia control tower of a plane that went down near New York, Gladwell shows that what the psychologists call "mitigated speech"--speech that is not direct and straightforward, owing to deference--had a great deal to do with causing the crash. Gladwell even goes so far as to write that, where mitigated speech prevails, "planes are safer when the less experienced pilot is flying, because it means the second pilot isn't going to be afraid to speak up."

All this is belied, of course, by the recent experience of the US Airways Flight 1549 plane captained by Chesley B. Sullenberger III, whose perfect landing, under conditions of maximum stress in the Hudson River, saved 155 passengers. Captain Sullenberger, a veteran pilot, in his first interview, claimed that he knew that nothing less than a perfect landing--wings exactly level, nose slightly up, at a descent rate that was survivable, landing at just the right speed--would do to bring the plane down without destroying it. "I was sure I could do it," he said afterwards, without the least braggadoccio. No explanation for this--in birth date, cultural conditioning, even practice--for the saving of the lives of the passengers of Flight 1549, except bloody wonderful good luck in having so fine a pilot in charge.

When it comes to the question of why Asians, and in especial Chinese, tend to excel at mathematics, Gladwell upholds the "importance of attitude in doing mathematics." He then sets out a claim for the Chinese cultural inheritance of patience and scrupulous attention to detail required by the cultivation of rice paddies, which involve relentless long days of work every day of the year. (American farming, by contrast, as he informs us, is merely seasonal.) Such work is part of the cultural inheritance of the Chinese, we are told, and the care and patience that go into the cultivation of rice are useful in the cultivation of mathematical skills, for patience is of the highest value in doing math.

Something to it, perhaps, but, again, not all that much, or at least not enough to persuade. In the same cultural vein, Gladwell remarks that many Jews do well in business because their parents and grandparents, as immigrants to the United States, started out in the needle trades, often working on their own at home at the end of the factory day. This, and a taste for work that they could throw themselves into, encouraged entrepreneurship in their children. Hold the cultural interpretation, hold the secondary social science. In their place, I submit a rough Jewish aphorism, which runs, "Only a schmuck works for someone else," the short interpretation of which is that, insofar as possible, it is good not to have one's fate in the hands of anyone but oneself.

In Blink, Gladwell wrote that "there are times when we demand an explanation when an explanation isn't really possible." But such modesty isn't really what his books are about. Nor are all his explanations disappointingly thin, half-convincing at best. In Blink he includes a section on how auditioning classical musicians' performances from behind a screen has, over the years, eliminated the prejudices against women in classical music, so that today most symphony orchestras, once male-dominated, are roughly half female. Jumping out of the box, as is his wont, Gladwell suggests that it might make sense to have defendants in criminal trials also behind screens, so that jurors will not convict them on their looks or manner. Like George Costanza in Seinfeld, Malcolm Gladwell tends to go too far.

In another instance, Gladwell compares the fortunes of a man with a very high IQ named Chris Langan, who has not had the success his raw intelligence would seem to deserve, with that of
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Berkeley physicist who headed the program to develop the atomic bomb. He concludes that Oppenheimer succeeded because he came from a wealthy and cultivated family, with all that implied in natural advantages in education and culture, where Langan came from a violent, dysfunctional one, and that, consequently, Oppenheimer was never daunted by the kind of minor setbacks that cost Langan the chance of a brilliant career. He caps this by saying that Oppenheimer had "a sense of entitlement" unavailable to poor Langan; backed up by a sociological study done by someone named Annette Lareau, he claims that "this is the advantage that Oppenheimer had and that Chris Langan lacked."

J. Robert Oppenheimer, permit me to suggest, was a man of such suavity, subtlety, and layered complexity as to be quite beyond Malcolm Gladwell's ken and comprehension. One cannot say about such a man that the secret to his complicated and, in many ways, tortured life was that his birth bestowed a sense of entitlement in him. One can say it, of course, but in so saying one is dealing in the grossest caricature--social-science cartooning, really, nothing more--and has vastly distanced oneself from reality.

Too frequently one reads Gladwell's anecdotes, case studies, potted social-science research and thinks: interesting if true. Yet one feels naggingly doubtful about its truth quotient. So much Gladwell writes that is true seems not new, and so much he writes that is new seems untrue. Preponderantly, what he reports feels more like half- and quarter-truths, because they do not pass the final truth test about human nature: They rarely, that is, honor the complexity of life.

Only in Outliers has a political note sounded clearly in Gladwell's writing. The problem with life, it turns out, is an environment problem. All that is required to make life better, fairer, sweeter in every way, is to change the environment. "To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success--the fortunate birthdates and the happy accidents of history--with a society that provides opportunities for all," Gladwell writes. "The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for."

The first step in the bestseller formula is to tell people something that they want to hear. Gladwell tells his readers that, with a few sensible alterations--a nip here, a tuck there in society's institutions, throw in a bit of persistence and lots of practice--everyone has a shot at success such as that achieved by the Beatles, Bill Gates,
J. Robert Oppenheimer, you name him. In prose that never lingers over complication, he explains that life is fairly simple; no great mystery about it. Nothing cannot be explained, nothing not changed, nothing not improved. Knowledge is ever on the march. Life need no longer be unfair. Utopia is at hand, ours, with the aid of social science, to seize.

If you believe all this, do let me know, because I would like to sell you, at a very reasonable price, three only moderately marked-up books by the most popular out-of-the-box thinker of our day.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author most recently of Fred Astaire (Yale).