Malcolm Gladwell dissects success in "Outliers"
The keys to success are good timing, persistence and cultural background. Talent and smarts are incidental to the recipe, writes author Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers: The Story of Success."
Seattle Times book editor
"Outliers: The Story of Success"
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown, 305 pp., $27.99
I met author Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago, just after he published "The Tipping Point," which sold millions of copies and was blessed with a title that became a cultural buzzword — a term for small moments in history that become pivot points for massive change.
Gladwell was a soft-spoken guy with a cafe-au-lait complexion and a halo of frizzy hair. He made a lovely dinner-party companion, but I can't remember much of it (possibly owing to the free wine provided by his publisher). In the years since his success, I have wondered — probably like a lot of other literary types who haven't written a book that wound up on the world's nightstands — what's he got that the rest of us haven't?
Now Gladwell has written a book that attempts to answer that question about his fellow members of the order of the smart, successful and lucky. "Outliers: The Story of Success," in stores Tuesday, is a smoothly written, fascinating but not entirely persuasive essay on the factors that make up success — namely good timing, persistence and cultural background. Talent and smarts are incidental to the recipe.
Gladwell begins with a chapter called "The Matthew Effect," so-called after this verse in the Bible's book of Matthew: "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he hath." Case in point: elite Canadian hockey teams. Gladwell discovers that the cutoff for Canadian kids' hockey eligibility is Jan. 1 — if you're born after that date, you have to wait another year. Turns out that rosters of elite teams are overwhelmingly staffed with kids whose birthdays are in the first three months of the year. It's not just athletic ability that matters: It's age, size and maturity. From there it's a snowball effect; better players get on better teams that get superior coaching.
Same with gifted classes: Kids identified at an early age by IQ tests get more advanced instruction, compete with higher-octane peer groups and move on to high schools with more advanced classes.
"If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the 'talented' from the 'untalented'; and if you provide the 'talented' with a superior experience," Gladwell writes, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who's Most Likely to Succeed.
He moves on to the good-timing effect. Star of this show is Seattle's very own Bill Gates and Lakeside School's legendary rummage sale.
Because the mothers of Lakeside took $3,000 from the sale and bought the school a computer for its computer club — in 1968, a year when most colleges didn't have computers — the young Bill Gates and his sidekick Paul Allen got to program their adolescent hearts out. Gladwell discovers that several pioneers in the computing world, including Microsoft's Gates, Allen and Steve Ballmer; Apple's Steve Jobs; and Google's Eric Schmidt, were born within a three-year window (1954-56) of one another. All came of age when the nature of computer programming became exponentially more accessible to bright young things.
Then there's the work-like-a-dog effect. What do Gates, Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy, the Beatles and master classical musicians have in common? They all worked at least 10,000 hours at what they became good at — the Beatles' immortal sound came together in seven-hour marathon gigs in Hamburg strip clubs.
"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.
Then "Outliers" turns to the larger canvas of how culture and history shape human behavior and predispose entire populations to success — or not. Jewish immigrants to America were successful because, denied the right of land ownership in their native countries, they were forced to learn skills such as tailoring. Turns out, those were just the occupations they could adapt and prosper from in urban America. Immigrants from more agrarian cultures — Irish and Italians — had no such skill set to fall back on.
If "Outliers" sounds like something of a sprint through reams of educational theory, sociology, psychology and history — that is exactly what it is. In the name of a smooth read, Gladwell glides through topics as complicated as IQ tests with nary a word of explanation as to why they remain ubiquitous. If they're pointless in aiding success, why are they still widely used in every field, from education to business to the military?
And it did not occur to me until late in this engaging book that Gladwell never confronts the fact that success is defined differently in different cultures; not until he brings up a topic I know a lot about — overscheduled children. He writes, with unambiguous approval, of the typical day of a 12-year-old girl in a Bronx magnet school, a striver named Marita who wakes up at 5:45 each morning, studies all day and evening, and gets to bed at 11 p.m.
There's no question that Marita won the educational lottery when she was admitted to this school, but her mother has to schedule an appointment with her daughter to find out how her day went. The author does briefly acknowledge that, "Children, we like to believe, should have time to play and dream and sleep." But a lot of people don't just like to believe that — they do believe it.
The epilogue of "Outliers" is devoted to Gladwell's family history, as he traces his success to family background, to the times in which he lives, and to no small amount of luck. He comes from a tribe of hardworking, striving, education-loving immigrants. But he might have relations back in Jamaica who believe success is the luxury of a tidy house, a comfy porch rocker, a glass of lemonade and a beautiful sunset. Who's to say who's right?
"Outliers" is a trenchant examination of the elements of success that shape a striving Westerner, but it's not the whole story. Maybe this talented writer and reporter should take on the topic of "Happiness," perhaps the ultimate measure of a successful life, next.
Mary Ann Gwinn is the book editor of The Seattle Times and the mother of two overscheduled teenagers.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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