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Very pretty. But, can it fight?
on 7 January 2011
Perhaps the main problem with the book is its use of the word 'outliers' to refer to exceptional people, individuals who achieve so much more than others. It should instead refer to the exceptional circumstances that allowed them their meteoric rise to success. These factors - such as year and era of birth, family background, race and place of education - contain the quirks of fate that allow the merely talented to achieve the successes that lie so far outside the norm. This is Gladwell's major thesis.
Gladwell's target is the traditional American story of success: rugged individuals, by dint of hard work and raw talent - perspiration and inspiration - achieve those magnificent success levels that elude others. Instead, Gladwell wants to show the place of circumstances and situation in this story. He wants to give success a context beyond that of one man and his willpower. Fair enough.
In order to do this, Gladwell tells some stories of his own. Lots of them, in fact. The book is one, big collection of counter-cultural stories about the nature of specifically American success. By 'counter-cultural' I mean contrary to the 'rugged individual' myth described above. This story-method is Gladwell's greatest strength or weakness, depending of what you're looking for. Me, I wanted to read something fascinating, provocative, and launch-pad like. That's exactly what I got.
Most of Gladwell's detractors find his method of extreme induction - "Here's one case so that means there's a pattern" - infuriating. I find in fun. When I read a Gladwell book, I'm not on the lookout for rigorous sampling methods or objective self-criticism. Let's leave that to university textbooks, can't we? Gladwell does pop journalism with ideas and trends. He's a beginning, a warm-up guy, a threshold-guardian of atypical info. You don't need to take him more seriously than that.
That said, my lingering sense after finishing the book was one of anticlimax. OK, so now we know that as well as talent and effort, success also requires of us a massive amount of good fortune and opportunity. So what exactly can I do about it? Beyond vague pleas for someone - Big government? The education system? - to take this wider context into account, there's not much we as individuals can do about it.
Or maybe there there is. Throughout the book Gladwell does flag up a couple of possibilities. He just doesn't do too much with them, that's all. That's what frustrated me the most with the book.
For instance, Gladwell spends some time taking the IQ industry to task. He points out some examples of people with incredibly high IQ levels who haven't made been successful. So far, so trite. Gladwell sexes up this observation by juicy piece of compare and contrast (chapter 4). In one corner, entre Chris Langan, in IQ terms a genius, but in success terms a flop. In the other corner, there's J Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and director of the Manhattan Project. The difference? Oppenheimer had charm, excellent communication skills, and 'social knowledge'. And where did this come from? His comfortable, suburban, upper-middle class background.
It's here that I want to scream. My mind is shouting, "Write about emotional intelligence! Tell them that social skills and communication can be learned! Mention Howard Gardner, or at least Daniel Goleman!" But no. Instead, we get one footnote, two sentences, about the work of Robert Sternberg (p. 290). Way to go, Malcolm. Not. Here's a prime chance to sow the seeds of personal development, but instead you pour on the cement of social conditioning and class consciousness. Again, nothing for us to do.
Another example is Gladwell's handling of the 10,000 hour rule (chapter 2), formulated by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson. According to this rule, 10,000 hours is the amount of practise required before a human being can lay claim to mastery or expertise in an activity. Even if you're a genius like Mozart, you still have to pump in those hours. Gladwell illustrates this rule with the Beatles (performing together) and Bill Gates (programming).
Only problem is, he then goes on to describe how a very specific and unique set of circumstances allowed them to notch up those hours, factors that Joe Bloggs public - that's you and me, folks - just couldn't contrive. Still, it made me wonder whether I've chalked up anything near 10,000 hours honing a particular skill. The best I could come up with was reading. Does that count?
Anyway, I give the book three out of five stars for entertainment value, quality of journalism, mental stimulation, and idea-gathering. For my taste, there's a little too much, 'me, me, me' in Outliers; Gladwell needs to untangle his brain from his own hype. But his main problem is that the book is discouraging, leavening us little to do beyond wonder if we were born on the wrong time and place to achieve a level of success that lies outside the mean.
Outliers is a book of pretty analysis, that's for sure. I just don't know what I'm supposed to do with it. And for a book about success, that's a pretty tragic flaw.