Reviewed by Howard Gardner
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The Story of Success
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown. 309 pp. $27.99
With his knack for spotting curious findings in the social sciences, his vivid writing about phenomena that he has named (The Tipping Point, Blink), his signature Afro and his star quality in public appearances, Malcolm Gladwell stands out among contemporary writers: In his own terms, he is one of the outliers -- "men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary."
As an outlier, Gladwell turns conventional wisdom on its head. In much of the world, particularly in the United States today, we attribute success to the attributes of the individual. In other regions, and in other eras, great achievements are attributed to luck or fate. But the pendulum of explanation swings. Following a period in which it was politically incorrect to invoke nature, we now find ourselves in an era in which biological causes are all too readily cited.
By reconceptualizing the relationship between nature and nurture, Gladwell performs a valuable service. He assembles a powerful brief in favor of the argument that the time, place and resources available to individuals and groups are decisive factors in their eventual success or failure. In vintage Gladwellian fashion, he applies this lens to a fascinating array of cases, many of them unfamiliar, and culminates with an account of one outlier to whom he has special access: himself.
Gladwell is most persuasive when he examines single individuals or small and easily defined groups. He reveals the reasons why star Canadian hockey players are typically born in January, February or March; why nearly all of the pioneers in hardware and software were born in the United States in the middle 1950s; and, most astonishing, why 14 of the 75 richest persons in the history of the world were born in a single country (the United States) and in a single decade (from 1831 to 1840). Out of fairness to the author, I won't reveal what-dun-it. But here's a hint for the latter two: Think of what else was happening in the world when these people came of age.
Gladwell also presents an interesting analysis of why individuals who might have become outliers fail to do so. He suggests why most of the so-called geniuses discovered by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman on the basis of their sky-high IQs did not accomplish anything of particular note; why Californians missed by Terman in the early 1900s became presidents (Nixon) or Nobel prize winners (William Shockley); and why the man reputed to be the smartest in the world, one Chris Langan, is a ne'er-do-well. If certain forces in the environment raise the likelihood of success (e.g., the birth of a new industry whose requirements mesh with one's strengths), their absence (in the case of Langan, few positive role models, mentors or peers with whom to interact) can undermine its possibility.
When Gladwell turns his attention to the success of certain ethnic groups, he is less persuasive. It is well known that Jewish people became leading lawyers in New York in the latter half of the 20th century, and that Asian youth outscore other groups on tests of mathematical ability. In attempting to tease out the contributory factors, Gladwell stresses that Jewish parents were often in the garment industry and that for centuries Chinese had to eke out a living in tiny rice paddies. "What redeemed the life of a rice farmer," he notes "was the nature of that work. It was a lot like the garment work by the Jewish immigrants to New York. . . . There is a clear relationship in rice farming between effort and reward." These examples seem contrived. Gladwell wants to link the way that Jews and Asians went about prototypical jobs with the outsized achievements of their progeny. In my view, the long-lived, continuous survival of these literate ethnic groups is far more likely the cause of their children's success than the kind of work that happened to be done by earlier generations.
At times, in his laudable effort to critique biological arguments, especially the idea that talent is dispensed by the luck of the genetic draw, Gladwell goes too far. He is enamored of the claim in the psychological literature that expertise depends on 10 years and 50,000 hours of practice. That may be generally correct. But researchers conveniently do not consider what it takes to apply oneself so assiduously and, in particular, why one would want to work so hard if one was not progressing rapidly to the head of the class. Yo-Yo Ma did not just practice a lot; his progress from one lesson to another, from one concert to the next, was spectacular. And so, too, for Tiger Woods, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein and other famous outliers.
Gladwell places the nature of talent inside a lock box, conceding its importance but making no effort to explain what it is or how it emerges. That is unfortunate because, in the end, practice does not suffice for the most remarkable achievements. Only as we discover just what it is in the genes, the brain, the personality and the motivational system that distinguishes Mozart from Salieri or Chris Langan from other high-IQ types such as, for instance, the great mathematician John von Neumann or the unabomber Theodore Kaczyinski, will we fill in the untold chapters of the outlier story.
Still, Gladwell reveals his special genius in the remarkable trilogy completed by Outliers. It is not in defining a problem: The phenomena he studies have long fascinated laypeople and scholars. Nor is it in providing a tight, scientific synthesis: That achievement belongs to the rare, focused scholar. Rather, it is in spotting remarkable jewels in the vast rock collection of social-science research and placing them expertly into an exquisite setting. Alas, his autobiographical coda to the book does not reveal how he has attained this singular skill; the secret of his talent remains to be explicated, secure for the time being in its lockbox. But we do understand far better the familial, historical and cultural factors that made one Malcolm Gladwell possible. ·
Howard Gardner is the author of many books, including "Creating Minds" and "Extraordinary Minds."