Gladwell Tackles Success

Posted November 20, 2008 at 5:01pm

Malcolm Gladwell, a former business reporter at the Washington Post and now a staff writer at the New Yorker, made his reputation as a social science popularizer in 2000 with the publication of “The Tipping Point” and in 2005 with “Blink.”

His new book, “Outliers,” hit bookstores this week and will almost certainly have the same worldwide success.

Gladwell’s books have the same easy pleasures of a good stand-up comic, and the slightly patronizing tone of Leonard Bernstein delivering his Young People’s Concerts.

His books work because like the best stand-ups, they take a fresh approach to everyday things: In “Blink,” Gladwell examines how we make split-second decisions; in “The Tipping Point,” he looks at when certain phenomenon become inevitable.

Like Bernstein, his manner is reassuring, professorial, chatty. He’s talking to you, dear reader, and he’s trying to explain some things we’ve all thought about, but can’t quite find an explanation for that makes sense.

“Outliers: The Story of Success,” refers to statistical anomalies, people who amass great fortunes, whose inventions change the world, who become great sports stars and legendary lawyers.

It is a book that answers the question: How does success happen? And Gladwell is determined to explode its most powerful myth: the Horatio Alger vision of success as a consequence of innate ability, lifestyle, personality and determination.

In fact, it is less about ability than opportunity, less about talent than one’s legacy, or cultural background.

“I’m trying to do battle against what I think is this absurdly reductive notion that has long had a foothold in American cultural thinking: that the individual is master of his or her own domain,” Gladwell said in an interview.

Sheer effort, of course, is important, and while putting in the hours doesn’t guarantee a rise to the top, nobody rises to the very top without hard work, 10,000 hours or so, in the case of musicians and athletes — the minimum to acquire the muscle memory to become the very best.

Outliers, as Gladwell writes, reach their “lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.”

Take Canadian hockey players.

Canada is a nation of hockey players, and the best ones slowly rise to the surface through a sophisticated nationally supported system of differing leagues.

“[T]here are leagues for every age class, and at each of these levels, the players are sifted and sorted and evaluated, with the most talented separated out and groomed for the next level,” Gladwell writes. “By the time players reach their midteens, the very best of the best have been channeled into an elite league known as Major Junior A, which is the top of the pyramid. …

“You can’t buy your way into Major Junior A hockey. It doesn’t matter who your father or mother is, or who your grandfather was, or what business your family is in. Nor does it matter if you live in the most remote corner of the most northerly province in Canada,” he continues.

“If you have a ability, the vast network of hockey scouts and talent spotters will find you, and if you are willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you.”

There is a catch, however, and one that argues against calling the Canadian system of choosing its best hockey players a meritocracy.

The fact is, as Gladwell points out, that if you are born in one of the first three months of the year, your chances of making the best hockey teams are significantly higher than those hockey players born in the last nine months of the year.

In any elite group of hockey players, Gladwell writes, quoting the work of Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley, 40 percent of players will be born in the first quarter of the year, and just 10 percent in the last quarter.

The explanation is so simple that it was apparently overlooked until the 1990s, when Barnsley first wrote about it (and it has nothing to do with astrology).

In Canada, as in many countries, the cutoff for age-based hockey teams is Jan. 1. So a 9-year-old born on Jan. 2 will be playing on the same team as a kid who turns nine almost 12 months later, in late December.

At that young age, a nearly one-year chronological difference represents a huge advantage in physical and mental maturity, the same attributes that make a great athlete.

So when members of the elite “rep” teams are chosen, who stands out? Usually, the kids who are the oldest. They, in turn, get the advantages of better coaching, more practices, more games and higher expectations.

“If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age … and if you provide the ‘talented’ with a superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to that small group of people born closest to the cutoff date,” Gladwell concludes.

The implication is that Canada’s elite hockey team could be even better if its talent was more evenly culled, if, for example, hockey leagues were separated into those for kids born in the first half of the year, and those born in the second.

The same goes for education: According to another study Gladwell cites, students belonging to the youngest group in their class are underrepresented by more than 10 percent in four-year colleges and universities.

That’s the power of opportunity in creating success. “I’ve always felt instinctively that we are too quick to blame people when they screw up, and too quick to praise them,” Gladwell said, adding that he was particularly struck by a comment of Johnny Unitas, who said: ‘The quarterback gets too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses.’ I thought, ‘That’s the way I feel,’” Gladwell recalled.

Along with opportunity, the importance of a cultural legacy in shaping an individual’s success is also consistently underestimated. Gladwell looks at how those legacies influence math scores among Asians and the crash records of different national airlines.

He posits that the intricacies and demands of tending to rice paddies versus the relative ease of Western farming can explain Asians’ apparent superiority in math. And there is a fascinating chapter on the differences in how subordinates relate to superiors, which explains why co-pilots at some national airlines found it difficult — even when faced with an impending crash — to tell their captains in plain language that they were making a potentially fatal mistake.

It might be a bit simplistic, and there are likely other, yet-to-be-developed theories that explain these social phenomena. But it’s certainly interesting reading.