Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thoughts About Outliers: The Story of Success By Malcolm Gladwell

I’m sure that most of you have already read this book. I’m glad I finally sat down and tackled it, because for the most part, I found it to be an accessible and fun entry into discussions of talent and merit. This is the book that my father recommended – as I asked him to choose what I read during the week of his 75th birthday.

The premise of Outliers: The Story of Success is that successful people (and he means success by American standards) emerge in a complicated web of context. They are talented and hardworking, yes. But they are also lucky (born in the right time and place). And they have a foundation of cultural values that supports being successful in their particular area.

This premise is obvious in many ways, but it’s hard to live in the United States and not believe in stories of individual exceptionality. Whether it is the idea of genius or the idea of the self-made man, the narrative of individuality seems to be linked with a kind of hopefulness.

Gladwell wants us to let go of false narratives and create a more realistic and useful hope. One of the examples he offers involves the youth hockey system in Canada. He pulls out data that shows that most “star” hockey players are born in the first four months of the year (no wonder I’m not a hockey player!). In a system that is set up to favor bigger and more coordinated athletes, older children get more opportunities. As they get more opportunities, they get more practice. And with more practice, they get better than their slightly younger peers.

Gladwell asks what the world of elite hockey would look like if the system were organized differently – what if all the talented players had opportunities, not just a small slice of the larger pool? Wouldn’t professional hockey benefit in the end? And, in fact, more opportunities would mean more people becoming qualified to do all sorts of things, and more innovation would result. The narrative of individual exceptionality distracts us from being honest about the systems of opportunity we create.

The author loses me a bit when he digs into the idea of cultural context. He is trying to argue that the family we have and the culture we carry cannot be separated from our opportunities and the way we navigate them. The problem is that he makes huge generalizations about diverse groups (e.g. Asians, Southerners) that, at best, simplify cultural context or, at worst, verge into racist territory.

But Gladwell sits in a pretty comfortable place. He’s writing popular social science that is immensely readable, in a way that can mask the fact that it might be a bit light on the science. My family had a conversation over the holidays about whether popular history (the kind you buy at the Barnes and Noble rather than the kind you check out at your university library) is really history. If an author uses narrative flourish to tell a compelling story – inventing, perhaps, the dialogue or the color of the walls when there’s no evidence to support it – is it historical fiction rather than pure history? Does it matter if the data doesn’t exist to support the assertion?

In this case, can Gladwell back up his claims? Are the studies he references good science? Does it matter? I don’t know. Ordinarily I would be uneasy about someone making big claims about culture or social behavior without some significant scientific grounding, but it’s easy to give this book a pass. There’s a lot of meat to chew on here, if you’re willing to give the particulars the grains of salt they deserve.

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