Circumstantial Evidence: a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – The Story of Success


Malcolm Gladwell takes an engaging and colorful stab at what may be one of the biggest hoaxes of all time: the myth of the self-made success. It’s so entrenched in the popular imagination that Jeb Bush can get away with claiming to be a “self-made man.” According to Gladwell, however, it’s a person’s circumstances – and not some innate measure of his “merit” – that plays the starring role in the story of success.

Did you know that we pick athletic winners and losers by a systematic and irrational favoritism? Before you decide, Gladwell wants you to consider the following: an astounding percentage of the world’s top soccer and hockey stars were born in January.

That’s right, discrimination by birth month.

The typical cut-off date for recruiting kids for all star teams is January 1 and “age” for qualifying purposes is defined by calendar year of birth. For nine year-olds, a few months of growth advantage is huge. Kids born earlier in the year are more likely to make the cut simply because they are further along in their natural physical development, which makes them appear more “talented.” This initial competitive edge, arbitrarily rewarded, is further enhanced by superior training and exposure, thereby growing progressively larger as the myth of their greater talent continues to be reified at every subsequent stage in life. The same principle applies to other types of early advantage – nutrition, family stability, socialization (especially social training in self-confidence), travel, access to learning tools, exposure to ideas – in building the skills one needs for success.

Gladwell doesn’t claim that talent, drive, perseverance, and other personal strengths don’t figure in the equation. Rather, he argues that these qualities are not so easy to tease out from the context of opportunities. Just as being picked for the all stars early in life gives a kid the chance to actually be better at his game, things like health, nutrition, social training, and a supportive, stress-free childhood actually give people drive, perseverance, and even “talent” – which is in large measure a function of having sufficient time and opportunity to practice one’s craft, according to Gladwell (he explains that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become a world-class expert at something, regardless of how much aptitude you may have started with). He contends that to the extent that such a thing as “innate” aptitude can be determined (IQ, for example), it forms a surprisingly small part of the story of success. One interesting 1920s study by psychologist Lewis Terman, set out to prove the opposite thesis, tracked the lives of a group of high IQ children. To Terman’s dismay, IQ had virtually no correlation with success, while social status and connections did, in a big way.

Gladwell’s side note: two children excluded from the study because their IQs were too low went on to be Nobel laureates.

The biggest overall factor in success seems to be luck. And luck means the right connections, the right socialization, the right training, and, last but not least, the right timing. (I can attest to this. I’m alive today because I was running late for work on September 11, 2001).

The idea is hardly radical. In fact, it’s borderline platitudinous. But sometimes it’s really useful to take a fresh look at an old idea. This particular old idea is one of those pieces of “conventional wisdom” that doesn’t get due consideration in our practical judgments.

It’s the sort of idea that we tend to push to the margin when assessing someone else’s character or potential, choosing to rely almost entirely on what she has accomplished without regarding the context of her life. It has implications not only for parents, teachers, employers, and grant-makers, but also for anyone despairing of life and driving himself farther into failure by doubt, self-loathing, or shame about seeking the support that could make a difference. This only exacerbates the problem. Of course, there are those who don’t consider any of this a “problem.” They would rather let the chips fall where they may, throw up their hands, and say “life’s unfair; it’s a game of luck.” Yet these are often the very same people who are most eager to promote the “by your own bootstraps” theory of success and to vilify the less fortunate as “lazy” or “irresponsible.”

Part of what makes Gladwell’s book so eminently readable is his extraordinary narrative style. He clearly delights in delving into wildly divergent and obscure stories and back-stories. It’s so delicious, you instinctively step back now and again to make sure you aren’t being seduced by a weak theory powerfully framed. And to some degree, you are.

For one, while he certainly gives you some awe-inspiring “data,” Gladwell doesn’t lay out a methodology for arriving at his characterization of them nor for drawing his conclusions from them. He reports, for instance, that 22% of the richest people of all time were born in a single year, 1835. That sounds remarkable! Except, what the hell does it mean? Being the “richest” (unlike, say, “tallest” or “heaviest”) seems to me to be very much a function of one’s era. The definition of “wealth” may vary based on – for example – how much of natural resources are (still) available, how many manufactured goods are (yet) available, and what the buying power of a unit of currency is. Having a million dollars in the height of the second industrial revolution (when people born in 1835 were in their financial prime) could make you a lot richer, by some definitions, than having that amount in any age before or since. Unless we know how the terms are being used, we can’t tell if this factoid is just tautology or if it reveals something more interesting.

Also, the bulk of the book’s persuasive power comes from anecdotes. Anecdotes are not necessarily poor in evidentiary value, but they do need to be subjected to more rigorous scrutiny than Gladwell gives them. What makes these narratives form a collective dataset rather than a series of discrete phenomena, each comprising a sample size of one? It would be helpful to know.

Still, you have to give him this much: he punches some serious holes in the “bootstrap” myth simply by exposing many, many, little-known-facts about some of the most celebrated examples of alleged bootstrapping. Ultimately, I don’t think his book needs to push a grander vision than that to be relevant, and for that reason I find its other failings to be largely forgivable.

The great thing about being sold an old and relatively modest idea by Gladwell is that he doesn’t just repeat the idea, he gives you fresh and peculiarly entertaining bits of evidence that it just might be a more compelling old idea than an alternate – and bolder, more popular, and perhaps more insidious – old idea.

He takes case after case of real-life Horatio Algers and shows that extraordinary opportunities played a much bigger role in their successes than extraordinary talents. The more spectacular the success, the more jaw-droppingly serendipitous the confluence of events that lead to it. Bill Gates had access to a computer and was allowed to program on it when he was in the eighth grade – in 1968! He was very likely the only eighth grader in the world to have had such luck. That was the first of ten astonishing – way beyond the normal distribution curve – pieces of good fortune that came his way. Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems) had unlimited access to a computer lab in college, thanks to a bug in the time-sharing system! Each of these men, like many other “geniuses” whose careers Gladwell examines, started on his craft early enough in life to put in his 10,000 hours of practice by a relatively young age. And by the way, they all had safe, stable support systems that sustained their training routines. In other words, it may just be that a “prodigy” is groomed, not born.

Gladwell also tells two versions of his own family history. In one, they lived out the vintage American immigrant story of making it from “nothing” in a new country. But in the other version, his Jewish ancestors happened to find a niche market for a trade they already knew well (and had practiced in the old country) and his Jamaican ancestors lucked out when an influential Englishman took an interest in the island’s education system.

I really wish Gladwell would just stick to this kind of single-minded telling of these sometimes quaint and always riveting, bootstrap-bubble-bursting, tales. When he gets more ambitious, things start to fall apart. He makes broad cultural assertions that neither hold up nor illuminate his argument. For example, he gives a tortured explanation of how wet rice paddy management in ancient China led to more abstract mathematical thinking than in European societies. This is puzzling, since the historical reality does not really place China ahead of Europe in the development of mathematics.

He also makes much of something called “Power Distance Index” (PDI) – purportedly a culturally transmitted measure of how much deference a person is willing to accord to those perceived as powerful. It apparently accounts for why pilots from hierarchical societies like Korea crash more planes than those from individualistic societies like the US. It’s a tantalizingly suggestive idea.  Trouble is, PDI is inferred from the same social behavior whose effectiveness is supposed to be measured as a function of PDI. It’s just so much intellectual bootstrapping (pardon the expression) that leaves me unconvinced.

One feature of “Outliers” that moved me deeply and genuinely, is the story of Chris Langan, a man with not just an extremely high-IQ but demonstrably well-developed intellectual skills, who repeatedly tried but failed to make it in the world. He is a man who had precious little of that key ingredient of success: luck. His early life was fraught with want, neglect, violence, and uncertainty. Even when an opportunity or two came his way (as it did on occasion), he didn’t have the personal resources to take full advantage – resources like confidence and finesse, that only a stable, supportive environment during one’s formative years can engender. The irony is, a person with few material resources really needs more personal resources to survive. I think what sometimes people don’t get is how tenuous “one lucky break” is for someone who has nothing else. Maybe he doesn’t have a regular home from which to do whatever it is the break lets him do. Or the people in his life – if he has any – are either abusive and stress-creating, or are looking to him for support, rather than providing any. A guy like this is going to need superhuman amounts of self-confidence and assertiveness, just the qualities that guys like these have never had a chance to develop.

For obvious reasons, Chris Langan suffered from debilitating anxiety, self-doubt, defensiveness, social tentativeness, and extreme risk aversion, for which an extreme IQ was no match. He was easily intimidated by “authority” – including student services clerks – and unable to deal calmly and firmly with those whose decisions had enormous impact on his life. He had (and has) plenty of analytical intelligence, but he had not learned the “practical intelligence” that comes almost entirely from social instruction and a deep internal conviction, gleaned from experience, that you can usually count on things to turn out ok.

But Langan’s life kept teaching him that he could count on absolutely nothing turning out ok. “Every experience he had had outside of his own mind ended in frustration. . . . He had to make his way alone,” and, as the book’s one ultimately persuasive argument urges us to remember, “no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, not even geniuses, ever makes it alone.”

Republic Day

January 26 is “Republic Day” in India. It’s the day their constitution was ratified and it is celebrated with almost as much fanfare as the day they got their independence from Britain. People — some people — volunteer to register voters in remote villages. Kids enter essay contests. In Calcutta they have cookouts (it’s actually mild enough in January to do that!) and, of course they blast the Bollywood songs on loudspeakers.
Why don’t we do this for our constitution (Bollywood songs optional, of course)?

Come to think of it, why don’t we READ our constitution? Every middle school teacher and parent should require their kids to read it and write an essay about it.

Instead of Grand Theft Auto (or whatever the kids are playing now), why don’t we give them copies of the constitution for their 10th birthday? Am I saying that only because I am not a parent and I just don’t know what misfortune would befall me if I did that?

Maybe, but it could be, if nothing else, the perfect lesson in the idea of Sovereignty. Tell your kids that without the republican system, they would live in a world where the powers that be decided what they played, read, ate. . . .

Up With America!

It’s weird to be abroad this week. I must admit, I am missing the around the clock coverage American media must be giving to the transition in Washington. Of course, the whole world is watching – and I’m thankful for the unique perspective I’m getting (especially since I’m in a country where the Bush administration was not universally detested – more about that later). But the media here (including the regional BBC and CNN outlets) have many other priorities, naturally.

Incidentally, I am not currently able to get constant access to NPR and PBS online here as I’d planned to do when I came to India. My broadband connection has been spotty and is completely out this week. I’ve been going to an “internet café” to get online. It’s not the most convenient way to do things, but a great way to feel a part of local culture, which is a surprisingly different experience from being a part of a local family (which I am).

I met some twenty-somethings who are in a band called the “Hool” (it means something like a needle or pin prick) – they have an exciting sound too, and not free from the New-New Wave craze sweeping their generation (and making mine nostalgic).

These boys are (as creative youth everywhere tend to be) politically left leaning, but fond of America and Americans for our ideals of freedom and individual rights and respect for the rights of others – especially the equality of rights. These are the things people the world over tend naturally to ascribe to America’s essence, as strange as we ourselves may sometimes find it (either because we can’t separate it from the disapprobation we face from non-Americans when we abandon our own ideals and behave like tyrants or because we have bought into a craven view of American values as beginning and ending with the pursuit of material gain).

Members of Hool know an awful lot about American history – which impressed me. I know kids their age back home who know nothing about Indian history (or American history, for that matter). And these are ordinary middle class kids, going to public schools in what is still a relatively poor country, who don’t have internet access at home!

I could analyze the socio-political causes of this difference. I could lay out some policy direction for improving global and historical awareness among our youth. But you know what? I don’t feel like it. I just feel like savoring the feeling that there are people in the world, even among people far worse off than we are, who manage to know more than we do (if you’re comparing knowledge per unit of opportunity among similarly aged people) who nevertheless admire us. Openly admire us for all the right reasons.

A Speech For One Age

Barack Obama’s “first” inaugural address was no speech for the ages.Where was the precise distillation of some elegant truth (about the better angels of our nature or the only thing we have to fear)? Where was the stirring call to meet the great challenges of this moment in history?The call was there, of course. But it wasn’t particularly stirring. . . .

All the mundane policy references really belonged more in a state of the union speech. Worse, it sometimes sounded like a campaign speech about the “changes” that we need. As my sister said, “stop running for the office. You’re here already.” But I wonder if it isn’t ultimately a good thing that our new president sounded smart but ordinary and workhorse-like. In fact, the most “inspirational” point of the speech was not lyrical rhetoric à la “audacity of hope” but rather, “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get down to work.”

Befits the moment. No?

And thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, new guy, for promising “to be held to account and to do our business in the light of day.” This, more than any particular thing government does or does not do, preserves the integrity of popular sovereignty.

I didn’t even mind that he and the chief justice flubbed the oath. It’s in keeping with the dialed down pageantry of this inauguration day. I like this president, but I like seeing him demystified. I’ve been uneasy with the pedestal quality to the place many have bestowed on him, apparently forgetting the work he has cut out for him and the fact that he’s just a guy. A super smart guy, with great political instincts and, I believe, really good intentions. But just a guy, after all.

And by the way, if you still have any doubts about how hard this is going to be, remember that the market fell by more than 300 points, an inauguration day record.

Still, he managed to move me with his homage to our “patchwork of heritage” and his articulation of “the price and promise of citizenship” and his promise to our enemies that “we will extend our hand if you will unclench your fist.” Best of all, he quoted Thomas Paine, my favorite Founding Father.

So, maybe he is striking the right balance (deliberately or inadvertently) between getting us charged up and keeping it real. And while it was no speech for the ages, perhaps it was one for this age.

Checking In

Sorry to be MIA, I am out of the country.

I am spending a few weeks in India, where, although it’s a democracy (and not one of those sham ones with just one party), there’s actually a province where the communist party has held power for three decades (they’ve been elected)! Interestingly, these “communists” don’t seem to mind privatization (“liberalization” as they call it here) of any industries. At least from what I can tell (I don’t claim to be an expert).

But there are plenty of Indian communists who do seem to have traditional communist preferences (they tend to be from regions where communists are out of power). I heard one of them say that the current global economic crisis “proves everything we’ve been saying for years.”

Wow. It’s hard to believe otherwise intelligent people really think the failures of capitalism is an argument for communism. That’s like saying because beans give you gas, you should be eating poop instead.

On that classy note, I’m going to rush away. I will check back soon. I hope you do too.