Malcolm Gladwell , New York-based author of the newly released Outliers: The Story of Success, found his role in life when he fell in love with the social sciences. While most journalists are bored by sociologists, economists and the rest, Gladwell exults in their accomplishments. He relentlessly pursues the fresh and startling discoveries of academics.
When he finds them, he joyfully passes on what he's learned. He credits the scholars whose work he synthesizes, but some of them nevertheless resent his exploitation of their work. Instead, they should be grateful: He proves that what they do matters.
When Gladwell's The Tipping Point appeared in 2000, he was praised as an explainer and an ideas man; Outliers reveals that he's above all a storyteller. He digs out stories ostensibly to illustrate theories, but often the narratives are so enthralling that we may well remember them long after we've forgotten what they proved. His stories are detailed, beautifully paced and written with conviction. Gladwell, whose book ideas often start off as magazine articles in The New Yorker, has learned the knack of exhuming literary riches buried within the footnotes.
By 1971, for example, the University of Michigan was one of three or four places on earth where a freshman could have free access to a computer. One was Bill Joy, later a great star of Silicon Valley as co-founder of Sun Microsystems. He wasn't particularly interested in computers when he arrived, but he soon found himself programming eight or 10 hours a day.
He and that computer came together "by the happiest of accidents." As with many of the examples Gladwell cites, the luck of the draw played a key role.
Behind every success, even the success of a "self-made man," there's always a backstory. Cultural history and attentive parenting are obvious advantages. Another is timing. It was best for a computer genius to be born in 1955, so that he could hit adulthood at the right historic moment. It's best for a hockey player to be born in one of the three early months of the year. That way, he'll be among the oldest members of the yearly cohort in his local pee-wee league. As a result, he'll perform better than his contemporaries, get scouted sooner, and find himself being doted on by top coaches as he progresses through the ranks.
Gladwell analyzes the rise of the Jewish lawyers in New York, many of them the sons of garment workers and storekeepers, born in the Depression, ready to come to prominence in the era of the corporate takeover, a field disdained by the old anti-Semitic firms. Along the way, Gladwell borrows from a sociologist the story of a grocer from Romania who must be the all-time champion Jewish grandfather. He had 10 grandchildren: six doctors, three lawyers, one psychologist.
Through linguistics, Gladwell partly explains that Asians excel in mathematics because Asian languages describe numbers more clearly. Other language studies account for Korea's frequent plane crashes in the 1990s: Co-pilots, inhibited by their culture of deference, couldn't bear to speak bluntly to either pilots or air traffic controllers.
Gladwell wants us to know that success requires hard work. Almost everyone who achieves excellence spends something like 10,000 hours practising in their run-up to stardom. That goes for violinists as well as computer programmers. The "natural" talent who glides easily to the top is a myth.
In most fields, it is also necessary to know "what to say to whom." The saddest figure in Outliers is Chris Langan, who learned to speak at six months and taught himself to read at three. He may be the smartest man in the world, but his background failed him. A wretched childhood left him unable to present himself as someone others would like to help. He's spent much of his adult life as a bouncer in a bar.
And what about Malcolm Gladwell, another success?
In 1784, he explains in his last chapter, an Irishman named William Ford arrived in Jamaica as a coffee farmer and bought a slave as his concubine. They had a son who was "coloured" rather than black, therefore a step above a common slave. Their descendants were all "coloured," their status rising as their skin lightened. They acquired optimism about the future, passing it down the generations. The great-great-granddaughter of the coffee farmer was Joyce Nation, who by talent and luck got into an elite boarding school, made her way to University College, London, and married Graham Gladwell, a mathematician. They settled in Elmira, Ont., where Malcolm was born. He appreciates his family background but never forgets that their upward path began "with a morally complicated act: William Ford looked upon my great-great-great-grandmother with desire at a slave market."
That grotesque incident illustrates Gladwell's argument that every path to success, when studied, turns out to be endlessly complicated.