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All You Need Is Help
Are geniuses born or made? Both, says Malcolm Gladwell.
26 November 2008

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, 320 pp., $27.99)

Americans love the idea of the self-made man—indeed, it’s an important part of our national ethos. We often tell ourselves that highly successful individuals who rise to prominence without great connections or wealth—from Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—show just what is possible in our open society for those of modest means. Our politicians like to tout this narrative, too. George W. Bush took great pains to portray himself as a man of the people from Texas, rather than the scion of a blue-blooded New England dynasty.

According to celebrated author Malcolm Gladwell, though, it’s also complete hogwash. “People don’t rise from nothing,” he writes in his newest tome, Outliers. If we really want to understand the success of outliers—those whose achievements transcend normal experience—we need to look deeper, Gladwell argues. What we’ll discover is how often outliers are the beneficiaries of “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

To build his case, Gladwell relies on his own “outlier” ability to weave a coherent tapestry from dozens of seemingly unrelated anecdotes—a talent that made his previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, into international bestsellers. We learn, for starters, that almost all of the players who’ve made it into the Canadian Hockey League (Canada’s junior league) were born in the first few months of the year. It’s not that boys born in January are better hockey players; it’s that the birthday cutoff for the youth leagues is January 1, and so boys born in January are usually bigger and more coordinated than their teammates born in December, making them more likely to catch the eyes of hockey scouts. They’re then given better coaching in more competitive leagues, and hence they play more, get more practice, and eventually are, in fact, better than the unlucky Sagittarius kids.

Bill Gates’s “self-made” success had lots of preconditions, too. He was born in 1955, an auspicious year for computer programmers, Gladwell explains. The personal-computer revolution took off in the mid-1970s, just as young people born in the mid-1950s were pondering what to do with their lives. Gates was also uncommonly prepared; in 1968, his eighth-grade computer club at Lakeside, a private school in Seattle, managed to get access to one of the nation’s first time-sharing computers. Few college students had access to such machines at the time, let alone 13-year-olds. Gates got hooked and spent his teenage years programming. By the time he started Microsoft in 1975, he probably had logged 10,000 hours of programming time.

That 10,000-hours number is important. Gladwell points to research showing that this is the minimum practice time needed to achieve world-class performance. It’s rare for anyone to put that kind of hard work—20 hours of focused practice per week for 10 years—into anything. One reason the Beatles were so good, Gladwell postulates, is that they forged their skills in the crucible of a low-budget German strip-club gig that actually had them playing together for 8 hours a day, day after day. Yes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were supremely talented songwriters and musicians. But as Gladwell says, “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

They also tend to be the beneficiaries of positive cultural legacies. Gladwell argues that the entrepreneurial work ethic forged in the garment factories in New York 100 years ago helped spur the rise of the Jewish professional class. Similarly, the legacy of the Chinese rice paddies, which required careful, diligent, business-like cultivation, helps explain high achievements of people of Asian descent. Gladwell cites a Chinese aphorism—“No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich”—as exemplifying this legacy.

If success is indeed a function of meaningful hard work (and abundant research shows that it is), then we need to figure out how to import these habits to other cultures. Gladwell devotes a particularly thought-provoking chapter to the KIPP schools—charter schools for low-income kids that specialize in extending the school day and ending summer vacation—as an example of how we might introduce a “Chinese” work ethic into American inner cities.

Outliers is an engaging book, and Gladwell’s myriad fans will not be disappointed with his latest effort. He has great fun with prose; one character “waddles when he walks. He doodles when he thinks. He mumbles when he talks.” Gladwell goes on delightful tangents, printing lists (the 75 richest people in history, the colleges attended by recent American winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry), and then inviting the reader to look for patterns. In fact, Gladwell could reprint the first ten pages of the phone book, and many people would still read eagerly, waiting to hear his analysis. So it’s unfortunate that he chooses to overreach a bit here. His hushed missives to the reader—“Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success?”—obscure the quite uncontroversial nature of his central thesis. Does anyone really doubt that success is a function of some innate talent, opportunity, and a lot of hard work? He also throws a few poorly aimed political bombs: “It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks.” If that’s true, how is it that so many low-income Americans pay no federal income tax at all?

Gladwell is certainly right that a better society would provide more opportunities for bright young people to work hard, but in his zeal to be contrarian, he spends two chapters attacking the ideas of genius, IQ, and giftedness. His broadside could have unfortunate consequences for the very young people he champions. “Schools have programs for the ‘gifted,’” he sneers, using scare quotes. “Elite universities often require that students take an intelligence test (such as the American Scholastic Aptitude Test) for admission.” It’s a small point, but SAT has not stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test for 18 years (it currently doesn’t stand for anything, which makes you wonder how well Gladwell checked everything else). He admiringly quotes an economist talking about Denmark, where students aren’t grouped by ability until age 10. Elsewhere, Gladwell laments, “it’s the best students who get the best teaching and the most attention.” But this is patently untrue. A recent study from the Fordham Institute found that in the era of No Child Left Behind, teachers say they focus far more on their slower students than their quicker ones. Few American elementary schools group students extensively by ability, leaving the brightest students coasting through without ever doing the hard work that would allow them truly to excel later on. Many get bored and underachieve.

Gladwell tells the heartbreaking story of Chris Langan, a genius from the wrong side of the tracks who never got the opportunity to develop his talents. What Langan needed was to be recognized as gifted at a young age, moved up several grades, and given the best teachers, who could impart the lesson that his parents couldn’t: that the universe rewards hard work and that one can sometimes—maybe often—bend a situation to one’s will. In other words, he needed to be enrolled in a gifted program, rather than being stuck, à la Denmark, with slower children until age 10 or worse. With influential people like Gladwell talking down such ideas, though, kids like Langan will be even less likely to get such help in the future.

With luck, though, that won’t be the main takeaway from Outliers. The book has a more useful message that crops up from time to time: changing constrictive arrangements is often easier than we think. If Canada simply chose to create two birthday cutoffs for its youth hockey league, for instance, with January-June and July-December boys playing against one another, it could enjoy twice the hockey talent later on. When talent is lost because of such obviously unfair and pointless structural problems, we all suffer.

Laura Vanderkam, a New York City–based freelance writer, is a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. Her work has also appeared in Reader’s Digest, The American, The Huffington Post, and other publications.

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