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February 11, 2010

Samuel Smiles would have loved this book: Outliers: The story of success

Posted by Richard D. North

Outliers: The story of success
by Malcolm Gladwell
Pp. 320. London: Penguin, 2009
Paperback, 9.99

This book is very nearly as interesting as its author and his many fans think it is. I am a tiny bit snitty only because Mr Gladwell pretends that we are mostly in the grip of a myth in which

the story line is always the same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit and talent fights his way to greatness.
Actually, of course, there is another very popular trope which figures success as a function of class inheritance and pushy professional parents buying opportunities for their clever and diligent offspring and then networking like mad to make sure that their young learn the clubbable ropes, much helped by adult insiders who prefer to stay in their social comfort zone when handing out preferment.

It is one of the merits of Outliers that it sees the power of this second analysis (though it rather disdains the process). But it is a failing to underplay the role of the first scenario, as though it were both stronger as an idea and wronger as a process than it is.

Another great strength of the book is that it isn't messianic. It is a little too nuanced to be hijacked by anything like a political agenda. It opens with a long account of Roseto, Pennsylvania, an isolated Italian community which managed to buck many American disease trends by remaining very highly Italian in its community ethos. But then - thank goodness - the book doesn't pursue the line that it "takes a village to raise a child". Still less does it suggest that great success springs from the communal. It happens that a little further Googling shows that this community has become much more "normal" (and less normative) in recent years. But in any case, its recipe for beating heart disease was not very relevant to Mr Gladwell's search for the wellsprings of individuals' success.

It would have been interesting to hear Mr Gladwell's view on whether some societies nurture both general well-being and exceptional outliers. Sometimes, he is discussing why whole societies or classes produce certain generalised effects (the southern Chinese and maths, say), and it takes a moment to remind ourselves that he hasn't told us anything about what he is supposed to be discussing (let's say, whether there are southern Chinese outliers). So some of his best pages aren't exactly about his declared subject.

Almost all the stories he accumulates are riveting. Perhaps the best single example is the account of Bill Gates' early life. Widely seen as a driven nerd who is emotionally clunky, Bill Gates may have been those, but he was also well-placed to develop himself. He was at a good school when it happened to get a world-class computer and connections to an even better one at a university, and even as teenager he had developed skills (not least by devoting an extraordinary amount of time to getting them) that happened to suit some powerful and innovative people. What's more, he was interested in small personal computers at a time when few people were and just before (only partly because of his own efforts) they were about to become an enormous market force.

Mr Gladwell tells us many stories, and one way of looking at them is to see that Mr Gates embodies various criteria for success. Practice ("10,000 hours of practice"); lucky birth cohort; lucky market timing; and supportive parents are amongst them. He is at pains to cite evidence that

. the people at the top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
But we learn from the failure of a prodigy, Chris Langan, and the success of Peter Oppenheimer of the nuclear bomb, how being able to charm or at least impress valuable people at the right time is very important. You can be as weird as you like, but must be careful not to let oddity become alienating.

Mr Gladwell loves to see very successful people as being very lucky and mostly in the way they are embedded in circumstances that do them proud. We meet immigrant Jewish garment workers whose work only seems mechanical: they are in an industry where the geography of success is clear even from the vantage point of machine-workers, if they are bright enough. In New York in the early 20th Century, many of them flourish because the means of production are cheap (a Singer or three) and the market for ready-mades is burgeoning.

Their children, or grandchildren, are well-placed in every way to become doctors and lawyers. As the latter, they flourished because they are outsiders prepared to facilitate hostile takeovers. It's an old story, really: Jews have historically been deployed to do financial dirty work by professional classes which have come to prefer to seem gentlemanly.

But Mr Gladwell draws on fascinating work on what its author, Geert Hofstede, calls "Cultural Dimensions": the ways (say) Swiss differ from (say) Colombians. But Mr Gladwell stresses, too, that cultural determinism is not all it seems. There are black and latino mothers across the US whose children thrive in the highly-disciplined school environment offered by the KIPP system, and that's contrary to a stereotype that got to be stubborn because it has been playing out pretty well (by which I mean, badly) for generations. KIPP's motto might have made a nice sub-title for Mr Gladwell: "Work hard. Be nice".

I think Mr Galdwell is in a bit of a muddle about cultural inheritance, and why shouldn't he be? I loved the evidence that societies strongly and stubbornly vary in their acceptance of and dependence on (variously) hierarchy, masculinity, individuality and certainty. Mr Gladwell notes how "honour societies" (in which families and clans bear murderous grudges) seem to have been imported to the US from Italy and Scotland (he might have added, from North Ireland, too). Their feuds were seen to be playing out a hundred years ago, and seem still to colour the behaviour of some young people from, for example, Kentucky. I have no idea how much stock to place in this hypothesising but do think that it is at odds with his other evidence that people (airline pilots, for instance) can be trained out of dangerous inculturation.

Never mind, all these stories are of great interest, and any of us can follow the leads Mr Gladwell lays out in clear references. So the great merit of the book is that whilst it does lay out a line of argument, it isn't monomanic, let alone dogmatic. It does suggest, but doesn't bang on about, various tricks societies and families might learn to help their young along.

Perhaps I like the book because very few of the solutions are socialistic. Sure, you need great schools and universities, and maybe they should be in part state-funded. But they needn't be hugely expensive (though Bill Gates benefited mightily from one which was well-wedged). Students need to work hard, and to have the time and encouragement to do so (in the case of the Beatles, Hamburg strip joints provided that apprenticeship). Paid work should be as meaningful as possible because that's a merit in itself, but also likely to provide people with a springboard (that's how the southern Chinese grow great rice on farms the size of an apartment, and became such a flourishing diaspora). People can use all kinds of devices to overcome the inhibitions of their background.

Samuel Smiles would have loved this book.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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