In finding success, luck counts, too
“Outliers: The Story of Success”” By Malcolm
As readers we are endlessly fascinated with learning more about the lives of the truly successful, whether they are titans of industry, sports stars, or rock legends.
The question of what makes these people achieve so much is tackled head on by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book “Outliers: The Story of Success.’’
Gladwell, formerly a writer for the Washington Post and the New Yorker, penned two other nonfiction books, “The Tipping Point’’ (2000) and “Blink’’ (2005). As in these books, “Outliers’’ is a synthesis of psychological experiments, sociological studies, anecdotes, and statistical patterns.
In an eminently readable style, Gladwell attempts to explore the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture, though from the outset, it’s clear that in Gladwell’s opinion, there really isn’t much to debate.
Gladwell does not deny the importance of individual talent, intelligence, and hard work as relevant factors for success.
However, his fundamental thesis is that in any field, ultra-successful people achieve their status through a combination of ability, special opportunities, and the kind of arbitrary advantage that comes from being born into a particular family and culture that supports their talents.
Gladwell examines individual life stories (including his own) to confront the popularly held belief that success is based primarily on merit. His goal is to show that there are a lot more variables than we, as a society, care to admit.
The book begins with Gladwell’s discovery of an extraordinary pattern that exists in Canadian hockey, where a disproportionate number of the elite hockey players are born in the first few months of the year.
Most people believe that in Canadian hockey, as in European and South American soccer, all young players are evaluated on merit of play, and that each child has an equal shot at the top.
But Gladwell argues that since eligibility for youth hockey teams is based on a Jan. 1 deadline, children born early in the year will be measured against those born as much as 11 months later. Children born early in the year are usually going to be bigger, stronger, more mature, and most likely identified as better athletes. Those young athletes will be chosen for additional training and more ice time. Over time, the others can’t catch up.
Gladwell’s point then, is that success in a sport like hockey depends as much on the idiosyncratic selection process and the cumulative advantage of better and more training as it does on ability.
In subsequent chapters Gladwell includes interviews with Bill Gates, Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy, and Steve Jobs. He emphasizes the unique access and positioning that each of these young men had by virtue of birth.
Gates, for example, was sent in seventh grade to a private school that attracted some of Seattle’s most elite families, where he was given almost unlimited access to programming on the newest type of computer available. By eighth grade, Gates was spending his entire week learning to program on a system that was very costly, and at a time when computers were a rarity even on college campuses.
One point that Gladwell also emphasizes throughout is that talent plus intense preparation also accounts for success. Using anecdotal evidence about musicians from Mozart to the Beatles, Gladwell concludes that world-class musicians, as in other success stories, don’t just work hard and practice hard, they work much, much harder than nearly all their peers from an early age.
While Gladwell’s detractors say that “Outliers’’ falls prey to anecdotally based sampling, and overly simplified sociological analysis, it is certainly an engaging read.
His goal is to demystify success for his readers. However, Gladwell also attempts to raise our consciousness.
With his assertion that some innate talent is necessary for success, in order to nurture that talent there must also exist a web of familial and cultural advantages, financial support, and extraordinary opportunities (some earned and some by luck). In short, no one can achieve greatness alone.
“Outliers’’ thus opens the door for the reader to consider whether there are children out there whose potential for success is being overlooked and failing to be nurtured by parents, community, and society.
Nancy Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.