Sunday, April 21, 2013

And Now, for the Rest of the Story . . . A Review of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

The late radio newscaster and commentator, Paul Harvey, did a bit for while called “The Rest of Story”.  He’d would start of a tale of adversity, come to an opportune moment, and break for a commercial pitch (usually, a cleaner called Bon Ami--emphasis on the first syllable). He’d then return with an announcement (and a voice he could have trademarked), “And now, for the rest of the story!”, wherein he reveals the protagonist’s triumph over the adversity earlier described. Malcolm Gladwell has done something similar in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. However, unlike Harvey’s tales, it isn’t simply a matter of the hero’s pluck and perseverance, but also of plain ol’ good luck. 

Not that Gladwell diminishes the value of hard work; indeed, it’s the sine quo non of success (see, for example, his discussion of the 10,000-hour rule). Nor does he ignore “talent”, that God-given set of personal characteristics that we receive via our particular gene pool. It’s just that talent along doesn’t tell us much about what distinguishes the pretty good from the exceptional. What distinguishes the exceptional is luck (or in terms from Machiavelli’s melodious Italian, Fortuna). Luck can take the form of extraordinary early access to computers (Bill Gates & Bill Joy); year of birth (highly successful Jewish lawyers in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s), or the color (or even tone) of your skin. This outlook is the anti-Bush, anti-Romney tale. For instance, Jeb Bush speaks of how he overcame obstacles to achieve business success, while Romney touts himself (or did, who cares now?) as a self-made man. Not that either man didn’t work hard, I’m sure that they did, but each received benefits from family and upbringing and wealth that very few Americans could match. They are among the fortunate few, although they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it (although, except that we may suffer the plague of Jeb, who cares a whit about Mitt Romney anymore?). (Hypothesis: what separates wealthy Dems (e.g., a Ted Kennedy) from Republicans, like a Bush or Romney, is an appreciation of at least ancestors having come up through the ranks and that good fortune has made the difference in their life’s course.) 

Like Gladwell’s other books, he relies on strong academic sources mixed with well-written and structured narratives. Indeed, Gladwell tells one narrative and then alters it with a “and now for the rest of the story” addendum. This way of approaching this topic makes for fun and compelling reading. Gladwell relates how rice paddy agriculture and the Chinese language for numbers can help account for extraordinary mathematical success by students from these Asian cultures and how culture brought from the Scottish highlands by Scotch-Irish settlors in the U.S. South can account for greater violence there, and so on. 
One thing I took away especially is the importance of school: of teachers and resources. Indeed, the whole book screams at us to provide opportunities for persons to realize their potentials in whatever their fields of endeavor or interest. Something as arbitrary as birthdays greatly influence ultimate success in many athletic fields simply because, when size provides an advantage, the older kids enjoy an edge that gets translated into more opportunities for play, which translates into more hours of practice, and . . . well, you get the picture. Scarily, Gladwell suggests that if Canadians changed their hockey league qualifications from yearly breaks to six-month breaks, they’d double the number of first-rate hockey players that they produce. If we as a society should learn anything from this, it’s that opportunity—the ability learn and grow—should serve as one of the highest social values. Sadly, I don’t think that we’re doing this.

A fun and easy read; instructive and ultimately inspiring, I recommend this book. 

Malcolm Gladwell is scheduled to participate in #JLF in 2014.  

No comments: