The Magazine

Jack-Out-of-the-Box

Malcolm Gladwell, explainer.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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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.