Poor Malcolm’s Almanac
Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little Brown. 320 pp. $27.99
Why do people succeed? Americans like to think the formula is a simple one: Work hard, show good judgment, and you can achieve extraordinary things, especially if you have some innate talent. Visit a Barnes & Noble business section and the titles leap out: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Think and Grow Rich, Success Is Not an Accident, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and thousands more. This sunny tradition goes back to Benjamin Franklin, who rose from nothing to become a leading scientific figure, reformer, and national founder—a man “who lived to stand before Kings, and died to leave a name which the world will never forget,” as Robert Winthrop once said. Franklin was the country’s first self-help guru, dispensing pithy advice to readers in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.
In Outliers, which has already joined its predecessors The Tipping Point and Blink in the august perch atop the bestseller lists, Malcolm Gladwell wants to explode this worldview. “It is not the brightest who succeed,” he observes. “Nor is success simply the sum of decisions and efforts we make on our behalf.” The success of “outliers”—his word for exceptional men and women like Franklin—is a “gift.” And that gift can be institutional, familial, generational, and ultimately cultural.
This proves true of even the most seemingly merit-based pursuits, says Gladwell. A close look at the rosters of top Canadian hockey teams reveals an oddly disproportionate number of players born in the first three months of the year. The reason is relative age. Canadian youth hockey leagues base a player’s eligibility on the calendar year, so skaters born on January 1 play with boys with December birthdays. At nine or ten years of age, several months can make a noticeable difference in a child’s size and coordination. The coaches then tend to label the bigger, more focused players the better ones, when in fact what they are is older. Those kids go on to get extra practice and playing time, and eventually do end up being better.
It’s a form of “accumulated advantage” made possible by arbitrary rules, Gladwell believes, and such unfair advantages are everywhere. “It is those who are successful who are most likely to be given the kinds of social opportunities that lead to further success,” he writes. “It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention.”
Gladwell grants that talent and hard work are factors in success. The greatest human achievements, he argues, demand ability disciplined by at least 10,000 hours of practice, a number he derives from recent psychological research. Gladwell points to the Beatles, whose hit-making brilliance, he claims, was forged during five early-60’s trips to Hamburg, where they performed (in strip clubs) eight hours a day, seven days a week for months on end, logging their 10,000 hours before they ever made a record. Few groups have ever played as much in front of live audiences as the Beatles did during their years of obscurity.
Or think of Bill Gates. Gladwell shows that the Microsoft founder benefited from amazing early breaks. Gates’s well-to-do parents enrolled him at the age of twelve at an exclusive Seattle private school that boasted—in 1968—a newfangled time-sharing computer terminal, hooked up to a downtown mainframe. Writing programs on that terminal was much less cumbersome than the old card-punch system. Entranced, Gates was soon doing real-time programming, a fourteen-year-old well on his way to logging 10,000 hours at the computer at a time when most colleges didn’t even have computer clubs.
The accident of time is another element in Gladwell’s “ecology” of success. The leaders of the personal computer revolution—Gates, Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Google CEO Eric Schmidt—were all born months apart in the mid-1950’s. Gladwell explains the pattern by situating the onset of the personal computer age in 1975, when a breakthrough microprocessor first grabbed headlines. The tech gurus were the perfect age to drive the coming revolution. A bit older, and commitments to family or career would have made being a risk-taking pioneer less likely; a bit younger, and the revolution would have already happened.
Gladwell’s chapter on several powerhouse New York Jewish lawyers makes a similar point. All born around 1930, they came of age during a Depression-influenced demographic drought, which meant fewer kids in the schools and more time from teachers. Later, kept out of WASP firms by anti-Semitic snobbery in the 50’s, they turned to unglamorous areas of the law, like proxy fights, which would become wildly remunerative in the 1970’s and 1980’s. These accidents of birth and standing, concludes Gladwell, gave them “the greatest of opportunities.”
Perhaps the deepest determinant of success, Gladwell believes, is culture. “Cultural legacies are powerful forces,” he writes:
They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.
As an illustration, Gladwell shows how aircraft pilots from cultures in Latin America and Asia that inculcate an extreme respect for authority can avoid communicating important information to air-traffic controllers and senior pilots, with catastrophic consequences at times.
These cultural legacies are extraordinarily important in education, Gladwell believes. National cultures that place a strong emphasis on “effort and hard work,” he points out, do better at mathematics—hence those high Asian test scores. Outliers locates the origins of that cultural attitude in the East’s history of wet-rice agriculture, which demands long hours, persistence, and patience.
By contrast, Gladwell says, poor African-American children do badly at math—and in school in general—because their cultural world de-emphasizes learning during non-school hours. The problem isn’t the intelligence of the children, or the quality of the schools, apparently. He cites research that found that poor black students in Baltimore learned at the same pace as their wealthier peers except during the summer break, when the rich children kept on learning. “The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it,” says Gladwell.
The great thing about discovering such deforming patterns is that we can change them. More so than in his previous work, Gladwell has a political purpose in Outliers. “To build a better world,” he writes,
we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all.
Urban schools could boost their hours, as the KIPP charter schools have done, and the result might be the closing of the racial education gaps. Canadians could have two leagues, one for children born in the first half of the year, the other for those in the second half, and a doubling of the pool of talented hockey players could result. Imagine, Gladwell speculates, if one million teenagers had have Gates’s opportunity: “How many more Microsofts would we have today?”
Outliers exemplifies Gladwell’s extraordinary talent for translating dry academic research in the behavioral sciences into vivid storytelling. Its pages brim with fascinating facts and effortless writing. There is a reason publishers now talk about “Gladwellian” prose, and that he reportedly makes $80,000 per talk in speaking fees.
But Outliers is a weaker—a less successful—book than either The Tipping Point (which looked at how small-scale changes can accumulate until they cause a major social transformation) or Blink (which explored pre-conscious and intuitive thinking).
One problem is that many of Gladwell’s generalizations are too glib, especially when it comes to educational controversies. KIPP schools are showing results with disadvantaged children not just because of increased class time, as Gladwell contends, but also because they require parental involvement, use excellent curricula, and can remove disruptive pupils. The study of Baltimore students that he draws on to prove his case on the overriding import of learning hours used a small and perhaps unrepresentative sample, which its authors acknowledge but he does not. At least in the public schools, politically correct pedagogy focuses chiefly on the slowest students, not the best. And maybe the Beatles logged 10,000 hours of live performance before succeeding. But what about the Rolling Stones, who generated almost as many hits but never came close to playing as much?
The deeper difficulty with Outliers, however, goes to the core of its argument. Does anyone deny that even the most “self-made” individuals experience lucky breaks and the beneficent influences of mentors or teachers or institutions, and achieve what they do in a historical and cultural context? We are human, after all, and our lives don’t take place in a void.
Gladwell can at times be perversely hostile to human agency. Claiming that the big-name New York Jewish lawyers had benefited from the “greatest of opportunities” when he is, in fact, describing their parents’ flight from Russian progroms and Nazi extermination, their own impoverished American childhoods, and their confrontation with rank prejudice at the outset of their legal careers is morally obtuse and false as a matter of description. It would make far more sense to say that the lawyers and their families forged a path to success against extraordinary odds. That is what made them outliers.
America remains a nation remarkably rich in opportunity, where innovators, the hard-working, and the talented can find myriad routes to flourishing and productive lives. Is it a perfectly just society, where all have equal opportunity, where unearned accident and unfair advantages have been forever banished? Of course not; but no social order will ever be such. Ultimately, Outliers, in its call for society to act more aggressively in equalizing opportunity and in its shrunken view of human freedom, seems the perfect expression of its own historical moment of newly ascendant Left-liberalism in Obama’s Washington. But the precepts of Benjamin Franklin—to say nothing of the lessons to be learned in that Barnes & Noble self-help section—still have far more to tell us about American possibility.