Part of it has to do with Gladwell’s glibness. And part with the sense he conveys of having discovered some inner secret to life.
He’s a facile writer, and his sentences flow with such easy rhythms that, as a reader, I was drawn along in the pleasant current. Yet, in the midst of that smooth ride, I could help feeling that somehow things weren’t fitting together.
Gladwell writes as if he’s come up with an insight at once extraordinary and revolutionary, a new frame in which to view life. His argument is this:
What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they’re like — what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top.
In the autobiographies published every year by the billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the same: our hero was born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit and talent fights his way to greatness…
In “Outliers,” I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they 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.
Getting or lacking a boost
And he trots out examples of people who have succeeded because of a particular advantage or have been held back for lack of such a boost:
• The Beatles who got the chance to play music for thousands of hours in the Hamburg clubs and, thus, honed their craft.
• A generation of Jewish lawyers who, excluded from high-status law firms, specialized in corporate take-overs that became a huge business — an example of a disadvantage turning into an advantage.
• Canadian hockey players who, with birthdays early in the year, were always the largest and most physically mature in their age group and, thus, got better training and opportunities and ended up in the NHL.
• Korean flight crews who crashed their planes because of a disadvantageous cultural legacy of politeness that kept the co-pilot from warning the pilot about a mistake he was making.
• Bill Gates who was lucky enough to get access to an easy-to-use computer while in high school.
• Asian students who come from cultures that expect and demand hard work, thus, preparing them for academic success.
All of these and other examples that Gladwell presents are interesting. And, as Gladwell presents them, they seem important, too. Are they?
In isolating a particular advantage — say, the availability of a computer to Gates as a teen — Gladwell downplays the myriad other advantages and disadvantages that had a role in Gates’s success.
Dozens of other students at Gates’s high school also had access to that computer. Only one founded Microsoft. Gladwell pays lip service to the intelligence, drive, creativity and entrepreneurship that Gates used — along with that early computer access — to be successful. But he writes as if this one advantage was the essential one.
My guess is that, even if Gates hadn’t had that early access, he could easily have gravitated to computer science later, perhaps in college. I’m certain that, if he weren’t brilliant in the particular way that he is, Gates wouldn’t have benefited from access to the computer.
Of course, this accident of circumstance helped Gates. Everyone is helped and hurt by lucky or unlucky breaks. My brother David hurt his back lifting weights in high school, ending his football career. If that hadn’t happened, he probably would have gotten to college on a football scholarship, and who knows what would have happened?
Your own life
I don’t think you can read “Outliers” without thinking about your own life. At least, I couldn’t.
My 13 siblings and I lacked one advantage that Gladwell describes in book. We didn’t come out of a middle-class family in which we would have learned how to advocate for ourselves with authority figures — to ask questions and pursue our own agenda. My parents were passive in such situations, and so have my siblings and I been.
Even so, our parents were also products of the Depression and taught us to be fiscally conservative, to work hard and to get along well with others. Those have been advantages that have made up for our difficulty speaking up to bosses.
I think Gladwell sets up a paper tiger when he says that “we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top.”
The bootstraps myth
Certainly, in the United States, there is a national myth of rugged individualism, of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.
But Americans aren’t stupid.
We know that George W. Bush was in a position — as the son of a President — to follow in his father’s footsteps.
We also know that Barack Obama reached the White House, in part, because he hit the scene at a moment when bright, articulate African-Americans were being aggressively sought by Harvard University, powerful law firms and the Democratic Party. If he’d been born a decade earlier, maybe he’d be running the Chicago Housing Department today, or organizing a strike by Chicago public school teachers.
And hitting the scene at the right moment in time would have meant nothing if Obama hadn’t been bright and hadn’t been articulate.
We know this about celebrities. We know it about ourselves.
What do we do
I worked for more than 30 years as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Even so, with one or two changes in my karma, I might have been a Chicago cop instead. Or a school teacher.
The essential thing isn’t that each of us has a set of advantages and disadvantages that we’re dealt. The essential thing is what we do about those.
And also how we frame success. But that’s a whole other discussion.
Patrick T. Reardon
July 31, 2012