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.”

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