Book World Live: Malcolm Gladwell, author of 'Outliers'
Tuesday, November 18, 2008; 3:00 PM
Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell was online Tuesday, November 18 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In the book, he explores what makes some people so much more successful than the rest of us -- and draws some surprising conclusions about the secrets of success.
Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter for The Washington Post. He is also the author of two other books, The Tipping Point and Blink.
A transcript follows.
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Malcolm Gladwell: Good afternoon everyone. Malcolm Gladwell here. Looking forward to your questions about "Outliers: The Story of Success." Fire away!
Philadelphia, Pa.: Why are more pro hockey players born in January? The only thing I can think of is that perhaps they are a few months younger on average than other hockey players in their age group (since hockey practices often start in schools in the fall and winter months) and thus they learn how to play earlier and improve at earlier ages than others. Am I close?
Malcolm Gladwell: Not close at all! It's because the cut-off date for eligibility for age class hockey is January 1st, and as the result the kids born in the first three months of the year are bigger and more mature when the first all-star teams are picked at age 10. And that early advantage never goes away. It's a fascinating phenomenon that's true of nearly all sports.
Washington, D.C.: How much of success is dependent on luck? Also, it seems like most successful men, have the support of a strong loving wife, do you see a difference between the sexes. I always laugh at the Oscars, how many famous film directors, actors, cinematographers give gratitude to their wife and kids it's often the same with doctors and entrepreneurs. As a woman, I think I would greatly benefit from having a wife!
Malcolm Gladwell: I spent a lot of time talkinga about luck in Outliers. I'm very interested, for example, in generational luck. If you look closely, for example, there is a definitely a "lucky" time to be born in the 20th century and a massively unlucky time. There's even a luckiest time to be born in human history. Should I give away the answers? Nah. You'll have to read the book! :-)
Bethesda, Md.: Malcolm,
I am ecstatic about the prospect of your book.
I knew the Bill Gates story from when I was a member of the Washington Apple Pi computer user's group in 1982. I told everyone for years that the "kid who dropped out of Harvard" was more of "the really rich kid who went to an elite prep school" than any kind of real drop-out.
I grew up in Bethesda, Md., and I saw people I knew, such as future film directors Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Jeff Tremaine (Jackass) hone their skill in competition as still photographers at an acquaintance's skateboard ramp. How does competition between teenage rivals drive one to outlier status? Almost all of my high school friends who hit it big, did so in packs, from journalists to lawyers to creatives.
Because far from it being coincidental that those two hit big, it felt more like each one upped the size of their hopes and dreams to outdo the other until both had respectable Hollywood careers.
Malcolm Gladwell: That's actually a great question. In one of the chapters in Outliers, I talk about the group of man--all the children of Jewish immigrants--who rose to the top of the New York legal world simultaneously. They all went to the same public high schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn, grew up in the same housing projects, went to City College and then on to NYU law school. It's amazing how many successful lawyers have that same resume--and its clearly a version of what you are talking about; that there is a kind of group effect, part nurture, part competition, that can drive a cohort to the top. You can see another version of this in Paris in the 1870's, when all the impressionists are hanging around in the same cafes.
Anonymous: Dear Malcolm.
I just saw you on The Colbert Report. Was there anything you wanted to add that you didn't have time to say on the show?
Malcolm Gladwell: It's terrifying to be on Colbert. He's so quick that you feel like you're going to fall flat on your face at any moment. And he's so funny, that you have to steel yourself against just laughing out loud. Believe me, I'm not strong enough to do any more time on that show than I did.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you find success advantages in birth order? For instance, are first born more apt to be more driven towards success?
Malcolm Gladwell: I don't play the birth order game in this book, both because I'm a little dubious about birth order effects and because I thought it had been covered heavily in other books. (The birth order skeptics say that birth order affects how you behave in your family, but not when you are not around your family. Not sure whether I believe that or not.)
Seattle, Wash.: Hello Malcolm,
Your other books are insightful and I've read an excerpt from your new one, in which you argue that no matter the talent or luck, it's hard work that makes the difference. The 10,000-hour rule was particularly well-argued, I thought. You made the point that those lower down the economic scale don't have the leisure to make this hurdle. Do you believe this will change in the future, especially with the Obama presidency? Many thanks!
Malcolm Gladwell: I have the highest hopes for an Obama presidency. But a lot of the cultural attitudes and economic barriers that I discuss in my book have really really deep roots--and it's a lot to ask of a president to turn those around in four or even eight years. That said, there are some great grass roots movements now underway that attempt to give lower income kids access to their own 10,000 hours. The last chapter of my book, for instance, is about the KIPP Academies, which I think are the most promising charter school movement in the country--and which use "effort-based" learning approaches with great skill.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: What is your definition of success?
Malcolm Gladwell: For this book, I'm focused entirely on occupational success--on how one gets to be good at one's job. There are many other, more worthy definitions. But this was the one I chose to focus on.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you find any correlation between people who are successful and whether they are risk takers? It used to be that risk takers were thought to be found at both the heights and depths of success, although more recently the economy seems to be punishing more risk takers.
Malcolm Gladwell: I would stress not so much risk-taking but an analogous trait--persistence. To go back to the lawyers I profiled, what set them apart was not just that they were willing to practice a kind of law that no one else was practicing, but that they kept at it--even when it did not pay immediate dividends. I think that persistence and stubbornness and hard work are probably, at the end of the day, more important than the willingness to take a risk.
Washington, D.C.: Malcolm, I know you're a sports fan and Outliers addresses how birth month affects junior hockey player development, by rewarding athletes who are a few months older and stronger. Still, how do you reconcile your theory for sports influenced more by natural size (i.e., basketball or football)?
Malcolm Gladwell: That's interesting. We don't see the same age-distribution skews in football and basketball that we do in soccer, baseball and hockey. And perhaps the size question is part of it. The other part of it is that basketball and football are more egalitarian sports--that is, there is less segregation of young players into elite and non-elite streams than there is hockey or soccer. By the way, let's not lose sight of the implications here for education. Its hard to look at the way hockey's emphasis on streaming squanders talent and not wonder whether streaming by ability does the same in the educational system.
Intercourse, Pa.: Does your success as an author confirm or refute the findings in your book?
Malcolm Gladwell: Confirm! Of course! I've been amazingly lucky. And I had an opportunity to get my 10,000 hours in. In fact, I got my 10,000 of training as a journalist right here at the Washington Post. When I started at the Post I was a terrible reporter and a mediocre writer. (Honestly. They should never have hired me). And when I left 10 years later, I felt I had mastered both. Without the supportive, nurturing cocoon of the newsroom, I wouldn't be here today.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi Malcolm, I was just reading a bio this morning on Doris Lesssing. In it was noted the fact that she never finished high school in Africa, nor did Nadine Gordimer, yet they are both Nobel Prize-winning writers and self-made intellectuals. They both have southern Africa in common; they are both women of nearly the same age. What the heck? Is it just serendipity, like Doris Lessing making me think of Michael Dirda which led me to The Post which in turn brought me here?
Malcolm Gladwell: That's fascinating. I tend to think that its worth looking closely at apparent coincidences like that, because sometimes you can find really useful patterns. For example, I found an extraordinary pattern in the lives of Silicon Valley moguls--which I'm not going to ruin for you. But these patterns exist because success is so deeply rooted in time and place.
Baltimore, Md.: Hi Malcolm:
Quite a review in Newsweek. Congratulations.
Would you say that excessive ego tends to inhibit or promote talent? What role did ego play in current financial crisis?
washingtonpost.com: Maybe Geniuses Just Got Lucky (Newsweek, Nov. 15)
Malcolm Gladwell: I don't go much into ego, I'm afraid. I guess I would ask--ego in the service of what? Joe Flom, who is one of the top lawyers I profile, certainly has a large ego and tremendous self-confidence. But I suspect that he would have accomplished as much without that ego--that is, what set him apart were other things, like the particular advantages of his ethnicity and generation. In general, this book makes the argument that we should be interested less in personality and more in position and background in explaining high achievers.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Malcolm, on the one hand, the thesis of Outliers seems sort of straightforward -- after all, of course Bill Gates needed a computer to discover that he was a computer genius. Nevertheless, even this straightforward thesis flies in the face of the American trope of "rags to riches." After all, the more that we can agree that culture and resources matter, the less we can hold people responsible for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Do you think that your book challenges the notion of American individualism? What policy implications does your thesis have?
Malcolm Gladwell: I do set out very clearly to challenge "rags to riches" individualism. It's not that I think that individual initiative is unimportant. It is. It's that I think that you can only work hard at something if you have an opportunity to work hard at it--that is, if there is a structure in place to reward and value what it is that you are working at. In the discussion of education, for example, I point out that a poor child in the inner city who wants to work hard at school literally can't--because school doesn't go on for long enough, and because outside of school there are precious few resources available for learning. You may have the drive to read tons of books on biology. But if there are no books on biology in your library, and the library is never open, your drive is meaningless. I hope Outliers focuses us on the necessity of providing opportunity handouts, not crutches--but opportunities that are there for the motivated to exploit.
Chicago, Ill.: From the excerpts I've read it sounds like one of the themes is the importance of the sheer number of hours of practice which people who excel (outliers) inevitably have to put in (e.g. the 10,000 hours rule of thumb). I wonder if you found that outliers are also especially good at sustaining intense concentration on the task at hand. This seems to me a concept that is distinct from the number of hours devoted. For instance, I've gone through periods where I am nominally working long hours but my focus is poor, and my progress and output were not good.
Malcolm Gladwell: In the psychological literature, when the 10,000 hour rule is discussed, its always referred to as 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice." That is, 10,000 hours of doing something with a deliberate, intensive, focus on getting better. So you are right. A doctor doesn't get good just by practicing medicine for that long. She or he gets good by practicing medicine for that long, if the practicing is done in an environment that provides feedback and a chance to learn from mistakes.
Anonymous: Do you find that the way one looks or dresses can alter the chance of success? For instance, are taller or shorter people more successful? What about those who look more mature vs. those who look very young for their age?
Malcolm Gladwell: You should read my last book, Blink! In Blink, I talk about why virtually all CEO's are over six foot two: because we have an unconscious preference, when it comes to leadership position, for the tall guy. The bottom line is that the world is not a meritocracy, as much as we may like to pretend that it is. And we have a long way to go before we really reward people based on their own merit.
Reston, Va.: I've ordered your book on Amazon. Fantastic reviews by the way.
A metaphor for luck, as I relate to it, is the Beatles. Hard work pushed them to the top, but it was pure luck that they got the chance.
They failed all their auditions for recording contracts. When auditioning for EMI they were told they would have to replace their drummer immediately.
And Harrison's comment to George Martin about his tie didn't help things either. But they got a contract and the rest is history.
It could have very easily never happened. Pure luck.
P.S. From the perspective of Pete Best, pure bad luck.
Malcolm Gladwell: Do you suppose Pete Best ever got over what happened to him? It would be as if your college roommate, Sergey Brin, asked you for $1000 to help start a little company called Google--and you turned him down. Ouch.
Towson, Md.: What might explain how geography (Florence, Silicon Valley, etc.) incubates these "eruptions" of world changing innovation?
Malcolm Gladwell: Geography is clearly huge, in terms of providing advantages. One of the things I wondered about, in writing about the success of Jewish immigrants, was how fortunate they were to immigrate to New York. A very similar group of impoverished immigrants came to America at the same time--Mexicans to California. But they weren't working in a high-paying highly entrepreneurial, fast-growing field like the garment industry. They were working in the fields of the Central Valley. If East European Jews had immigrated to California instead, and taken the place of the Mexicans, would they have been the success story that they turned out to be?
Arlington, Va.: Hello Mr. Gladwell --
(I'm asking this as a proxy for Bill Simmons) So, is your new book basically a summary of Rick Pitino's "Success is a Choice" narrative? Hee hee...
Actually, how success is achieved is a topic that I find fascinating. Back in high school I remember debating the idea that academic success was simply a result of hard work. Motivation was the top factor.
But almost 20 years later, it seems that hard work will only get you so far. The 'true greats' in any organization have something innate that gets them over the hump. Motivation and a critical mass of intelligence and/or skill is required to achieve the mythical 'success.' Is this the type of thing that is discussed in your book?
Malcolm Gladwell: Big shout out to Bill!
The true greats have something--yes. But is it innate? That's what I don't know. You know when I started this book I was heavily on the nature side of the nature v. nurture question. But by the end, I was a nurture guy. It's just hard to see high achievers as being "born" great; they seem to have been given, as a rule, such extraordinary opportunities.
Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Gladwell,
What was your the catalyst for this book? And, what do you hope will be the "take aways" for readers?
Malcolm Gladwell: I was just curious about whether successful people deserved to give themselves a big pat on the back. I mean, that's what successful people do, when they justify their big paychecks. But is it fair for the outliers to take personal credit for their success? That was the question I started with.
Obama: What could your book tell us about how Barack Obama became so successful? Something in the culture? Resources he had? Or was he just born under a lucky star?
Malcolm Gladwell: Obama is a great case study. I write a little in my book about my mother's background--about the particular set of opportunities and advantages that surround being a brown-skinned Jamaican. It would be interesting to do the same kind of analysis of Obama: if you are mix of Kenya and white America, what does that mean--precisely? How does that position you in people's minds, or in terms of the opportunities you may have received, differently from being, say, an African American?
New York, N.Y.: Does being left handed have any indication for being prone, or not, towards success?
Malcolm Gladwell: No idea. Although as a left-hander, I have a vested interest in keeping all the myths about left-handers alive. So, for the record: we are better! smarter! more virtuous!
Annapolis, Md,: I'm looking forward to the book very much as I've enjoyed all of your books and articles. What are you working on next?
Malcolm Gladwell: I'm in the middle of a piece for the New Yorker on what NFL quarterbacks have in common with teachers. Look for it in two weeks or so. It's slightly unhinged, but also kind of fun, I think.
Malcolm Gladwell: Ok. My time is up. Thanks to you all for some wonderful questions. And I hope you enjoy the book! Cheers, Malcolm.
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