A Journalist's Archive

Malcolm Gladwell
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

Another myth is dead. There are no self-made men or women!

“People don’t rise from nothing,” myth slayer Malcolm Gladwell declares in “Outliers.” Then he knits together a barrage of facts and examples to prove his point. Success is determined by a number of factors – most of which we cannot control. Birth date, social class, IQ, and cultural heritage all influence our chances for success. Sometimes these factors combine to boost individuals into a socio-economic class far beyond that of their parents. While other more intelligent or talented people, who are not so fortunate, have far less opportunity to succeed.

What is an “outlier?” The word usually refers to “a statistical value that is outside the norm of the majority of values in a data set.” But Gladwell applies the term to people recognized world-wide as leaders in their fields of expertise.

Of course Bill Gates, who controls more revenue than many nations, is the most famous outlier. While Gates’ success story is well known – he made it big after dropping out of college - Gladwell fills in a few missing pieces. In 1968, eighth grader Bill Gates just happened to be attending the only school in the country with a computer terminal that allowed students to do “real-time programming.” So Gates could test his new programs faster and easier than programmers in the U.S. military who still programmed via the old “IBM punch-card” system.

Besides being born to “well-off” parents, Gates had many opportunities handed to him. Living within walking distance of the University of Washington, a university that offered free computer time to any takers during the wee hours of the morning, was just one of many. But Gladwell contends even someone such as Gates, born predestined to succeed, would achieve little without investing 10,000 hours of practice in their specialty. Gates’ “practice” began in 8th grade. By the time he reached college he already had his 10,000 hours, and more programming experience than his professors.

So much for instant fame and fortune! Darn it, Gladwell’s message is loud and clear. Yes, the big mucky-mucks started out with advantages, but so did a lot of their companions. What separates the greats from the pack is an unbelievable amount of sweat equity!

While intelligence certainly boosts someone’s chances of success, Gladwell proves the socio-economic class you’re born into can even trump brains. He gives numerous examples of the “edge” super achievers received before reaching the pinnacle of success, and then contrasts that with the cultural and social obstacles Chris Langan encountered. Langan is not a household name in spite of having the highest recorded IQ in the world. Gladwell’s investigation shows Langan grew up in a far different world than most outliers. Few around him had a college education, so Langan didn’t have the social skills necessary to make it through college, or a mentor to lend a helping hand. Throughout his career, Langan’s accomplishments were limited because fate placed him in a highly dysfunctional family.

Yet what really sparked my interest in “Outliers” was Gladwell’s claim that a person’s birthday could provide either an impediment or leg-up on the road to success. Having read “The Tipping Point,” I knew Gladwell wasn’t an astrology buff, so I wanted to see the scientific data behind his assertions. And his findings made a lot of sense. What advantages do children born in January, February, or March have over classmates born later in the year? If you compare a one-month old baby to an 11-month old infant, the developmental differences are striking. By age six, when a child enters school or joins a sports team, developmental differences still exist, Gladwell said. Those born in the first three months of the year are physically and mentally more mature than their younger classmates. As the older students excel at academics and sports early on they grow more confident, which only adds to their future success.

Even the year in which you are born can make or break you. Gladwell gives a host of examples to support this claim. For example: people born before 1912 had far fewer opportunities than their siblings born after that date. Why? It’s all a matter of timing. Older siblings reached adulthood during the worst of the Great Depression. The younger ones became adults just as World War II broke out. Provided they weren’t killed, Gladwell said, these young adults returned home to unprecedented educational and career opportunities.

And today’s technology greats, including Gates, were born between 1953 and 1956. But there’s no magic involved here. Di Vinci is famous for painting the Mona Lisa, but he also drew up plans for a helicopter centuries before the technology existed to build one. Timing is everything when it comes to success.

Cultural heritage matters too. Gladwell doesn’t let political correctness stand in the way of facts. Children of Italian and Irish immigrants gravitated to the same working-class occupations as their parents. Children born to Jewish immigrants followed the same pattern, but their parents owned businesses and worked in financial institutions in the old world. In addition, Jewish parents understood higher education mattered in the new country. Consequently, Jewish children found it easier to escape the New York ghetto neighborhoods than their Italian and Irish counterparts did.

The last few chapters of “Outliers” are packed with examples of just how much culture influences every aspect of our lives. Gladwell presents a compelling “ethnic theory” that explains the role culture plays in plane crashes. Believe me, after reading this you will want to learn about the culture of a country before boarding one of its planes. “Outliers” also explores why American students lag behind Chinese students in math. Language differences and the “lesson of the rice paddy” may be the answer. Read Gladwell’s evidence and see if you come to the same conclusion.

This book is not trying to provide excuses for those of us who aren’t “Outliers.” However, Gladwell clearly shows those who reach that status had a lot of help, a bit of luck, and the tenacity to accomplish far more than the average human.

Read “Outliers,” it’s an eye opener.

NOTE: Next month, I’ll review “Seeker” by Jack McDevitt. Read the book then read my review. Send your comments to KathyH@newfalconherald.com

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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