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Fatwah / December 1, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell, successful author.


Ever wonder why you’re not rich and/or famous? If you’re an American, of course you have.

Or, if you happen to be one of the lucky few who’ve actually gotten rich and/or famous, your reaction when it happened was probably “It’s about fucking time my intrinsic greatness was recognized and rewarded.” Just recall Joe the Plumber’s easy acceptance of reporters on his lawn, cheering crowds, recording deals, etc. Like most Americans, he’d been vaguely wondering what took the public so long to appreciate his brilliance, and he was consequently more than ready for his bald-headed close-ups and smug sound-bites.

Anyway, there’s this new book out by former New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell that’s trying to explain to us why we’re not as rich and/or famous as we expected to be. It’s called Outliers: The Story of Success, but really it’s the Story of Why We’re Not Successful.

Turns out, intrinsic worth ain’t enough. High IQ, tremendous talent, moral giganticism, even staggering looks and charm won’t do it. No, there has to be a crazy concatenation of factors to better the odds. For example, a sense of middle-to-upper class entitlement helps, so it’s a bad idea to be born lower-class. (Thanks for the tip!) Year of birth can be vital to success in a given field; if you wanted to make your fortune in the fledging computer revolution, you should’ve arranged to be born between 1953-’55, like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and the other tycoons were. There are lots of tricky, heartbreaking anomalies that determine success even in supposed meritocracies. For instance, if you want to be a professional hockey player in Canada, it’s almost imperative to be born in January, February or March. (See Outliers, Chapter 1, for the gritty details.)

You can imagine what a soothing read this is. The entire subtext of the book is It’s Not Your Fault. And Americans especially can’t hear this enough. We bear a peculiar cultural burden that Alexis de Tocqueville, French political theorist and author of Democracy in America, figured out on his first visit in the 1830s. “These poor fuckers!” he said. (I’m paraphrasing here.) “With no monarchy or crushing class system to blame for not getting anywhere in life, and all this talk about how any jerk can become president, each American is going to feel hideously ashamed of his own personal failure to become a big shot.”

To the basic head-trip of democracy, add our loony “American exceptionalism” credo. Charles Dickens encountered this wackery when touring America in the early 1840s, then mocked it in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Everyone Chuzzlewit meets is introduced to him as “one of the most remarkable men in the nation,” until it becomes clear that everyone in the remarkable nation of America is remarkable, at least for their bragging and unearned swank. (Note to Charles Dickens: A posthumous sod off to you, Chuck! You Brits weren’t exactly the souls of sweet modesty yourselves back then!)

So what you have here is a recipe for furious shame and discontent in most of the population. Why aren’t we ascending, as promised, on our personal merits? What’s preventing our remarkability from being remarked on? And we want an answer that doesn’t involve raising ourselves by our bootstraps, because we already tried that.

It’s Outliers to the rescue, with Gladwell presenting the many, many, many reasons you’d never make it even if you wore out bootstraps by the gross. It’s really very cheering. If you’re going to be a huge success, see, your individual merits have to catch a wave of cultural phenomena that’s rarely predictable. If would help, for example, if you could go back in time and arrange to have your whole line of ancestors work at mastering a skill set that would eventually, at just the right moment, pay off for you in some unlikely fashion. (See Chapter 8 for the story of how generations of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese peasants working the rice paddies, a life of unremitting toil also requiring tremendous precision and attention to finicky detail, leads to the “Asian math whiz” phenomenon of current times.)

Hard work is a factor in great success, but it’s only one factor. The “ten-thousand hour rule” is covered in Chapter 2: it seems that in order to become a master of anything, you have to put in roughly ten-thousand hours, which translates into approximately ten years of serious slogging at one pursuit. If you’re working full-time at your day job during those ten years, you’re unlikely to get in your ten-thousand hours on the violin or whatever, so once again, the working class is screwed unless they want to become the greatest short-order fry-cooks the world has ever known.

But the ultimate overriding factor is, of course, luck. (Which, if you ask me, renders all the other points pretty moot.) Touting his book on The Daily Show, Gladwell cited Bill Gates, whom everyone assumes rose strictly on his own genius-geek merits, as fortune’s favorite nerd. In 1968, when Gates was an eighth grader, an odd fluke led to the junior high school he attended installing a sophisticated computer terminal that Gates glommed onto immediately. “How many students in 1968 had unlimited access to a computer?” said Gladwell. “One. Bill Gates.” Gladwell was exaggerating for effect, of course. In the book, Gates himself allows that there might have been as many as fifty students in the entire world who had such computer access in 1968. One of them was Paul Allen, Gates’ schoolmate and co-founder of Microsoft. Still, there’s no doubt it narrowed down his competition.

Gladwell’s book is a hodgepodge of these kind of stories, reflecting his New Yorker training. Book reviewers complain about his rotten methodology, his cherry-picking of evidence, and the unrigorous pop sociological tendencies of all his books, which include bestsellers like The Tipping Point and Blink. They’re right, of course. But it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s reading Outliers for rigor. They’re reading it for comforting anecdotal evidence that success is a total crapshoot and Horatio Alger’s a wanker. We suspected as much, but it can’t be repeated too often to Americans who were all supposed to be rich and famous someday.

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12 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Required  |  December 1st, 2008 at 1:35 am

    For anyone interested in the subject of chance and luck in life, I recommend “Fooled by Randomness” by N.N. Taleb. Randomness determines most things in life but even randomness can be managed to one’s advantage.

  • 2. Tam  |  December 1st, 2008 at 3:51 am

    Or even better, don’t waste your time with Taleb; one of those jerks whose banal insights are taken seriously just because he’s been lucky enough to get rich.

    Instead read this article about how to become as rich as Bill Gates by Philip Greenspun instead…

    “Lesson 1: Choose Your Grandparents Carefully

    William Henry Gates III made his best decision on October 28, 1955, the night he was born. He chose J.W. Maxwell as his great-grandfather. Maxwell founded Seattle’s National City Bank in 1906. His son, James Willard Maxwell was also a banker and established a million-dollar trust fund for William (Bill) Henry Gates III.

    “In some of the later lessons, you will be encouraged to take entrepreneurial risks. You may find it comforting to remember that at any time you can fall back on a trust fund worth many millions of 1998 dollars.”

    http://philip.greenspun.com/bg/

  • 3. burbl  |  December 1st, 2008 at 3:59 am

    You are a little late on Gladwell bashing:
    http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2008/11/spotting-malcolm-gladwell.html

  • 4. Mark  |  December 1st, 2008 at 6:20 am

    Hasn’t Woody Allen been covering this for years, too? The dominance of luck in life is the focal point of Match Point, for example. Not that it’s one of his best efforts. It isn’t. But it’s still a Woody Allen movie…

  • 5. Thomas_Nolle  |  December 1st, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Well if you can’t get famous, you can still be a sycophant and a toady to the wealthy and powerful—like Gladwell, who makes a nice living kissing Fortune 500 ass.

  • 6. Hannibal the Vegan  |  December 1st, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    I like television.

    He who cops the most snapper wins!

  • 7. James Bowman  |  December 1st, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    “I’d rather be lucky than good any day.” – J.R. “Bob” Dobbs

  • 8. Jay  |  December 1st, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Yeah, I don’t really understand why “amazing successes are the product of hard work, talent, and amazing luck” is news worth writing a book about.

    I mean seriously, if there was a non-luck-based formula for amazing success, enough people would have found it that it would no longer seem amazing.

  • 9. Amos  |  December 2nd, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Maybe the Exile staff should write a book, aren’t you guys pretty much experts on failure and sullen resentful hatred?

  • 10. Doktor Doom  |  December 2nd, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Don’t forget that Gladwell used to be R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.’s house negr—oops I meant Tyrrell’s… Clarence Thomas, at the American Spectator.

    Because it’s something to keep in mind when ripping Gladwell.

  • 11. sullenhatred  |  December 6th, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    ME TOO!

  • 12. Bayou Bob  |  December 7th, 2008 at 5:44 am

    We should add the definition of Neo-con includes a major subset of Likudniks*. (those with strong ties to the right side of Israeli politics), for a GREATER Israel,against a two state solution to the problem, for keeping all the land taken in 1967 (It’s the settlements stupid)— AND for instigating the Iraq War for the sake of Israel.

    These guys essentially took over our government/foreign policy when Bush and Cheney came in but had considerable influence before then.

    * Note most US Jews were against the Iraq War.

    For an excellent review of this read “The Israel Lobby” – Mearsheimer (U Chicago) and Walt (Harvard) 355 pages; w 115 notes, or at least the London Review of Books – 27 pages http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html


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