Critics panning Malcolm Gladwell's new book find it 'obvious'. Matthew Yglesias says it's just not so.
Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell Allen Lane Dh86 Last July - several weeks before the collapse of the American financial system - I was in Aspen, Colorado for the annual "Ideas Festival", a vaunted gathering of political leaders, Nobel prize-winners, academics, writers and artists. The most anticipated address, however, came not from one of the scholars or statesmen, but from Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase. In 2007, Dimon was listed as one of the 25 highest-paid men in America by Fortune magazine - taking home $41.2 million. He has also appeared several times on Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, most recently in 2008, where a blurb by the New York mayor and fellow titan of finance Michael Bloomberg compared him to a "Shakespearean hero".
When Dimon took the microphone in Aspen in July, the firm's stock traded at around $40 a share; now it hovers below $20. Not that Dimon is especially inept - by all accounts his bank has been better-run than most. But heading a company that succeeds during economic upswings and fails during contractions is, at the end of the day, neither the most impressive nor the most captivating achievement on the planet - and the ups and downs of financial-sector CEOs are not exactly the stuff of Shakespeare. Or at least they wouldn't be to a society that wasn't so morbidly obsessed with worshipping the successful.
In the world of journalism, few are more successful than Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer at the New Yorker, arguably the most prestigious magazine in the United States. His first book, The Tipping Point, garnered a $1 million advance and sold over 1.7 million copies in two distinct stints on the New York Times bestseller list. His follow-up, Blink, about the use and abuse of intuitive thinking, has done almost as well. These books have turned Gladwell into a hit on the lecture circuit, where he earns as much as $40,000 per talk.
In his books, articles and speeches, Gladwell's writing is marked by enthusiasm, a breezy prose style and a knack for the masterful and lively explication of serious, dull research in the social sciences. He is, in other words, a populariser without peer. In his hands, boring academic papers become thrilling, and absurd ideas like a 5,400 word essay about the scientific underpinnings of Heinz' domination of the ketchup industry come to make perfect sense.
In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell sets his sights on what would appear to be a rather more banal topic. Nobody else writes long essays about ketchup, but everyone writes books about success. In Borders, the literature of success dominates most of the Self-Help and Business sections. In America, a new brand of Christian self-help titles endorsed by the megachurch televangelist Joel Osteen is colonising the Religion aisles as well.
What distinguishes Gladwell's book, though, is that it upends every presupposition of the genre - and in its course poses a subtle but distinct challenge to the ingrained logic of merit and achievement at the core of the America's image of itself. For the secret of success, Gladwell says, is good luck. The people who really strike it rich do have talent and a capacity for hard work, but so do lots of other people. What separates the top achievers from those just scraping by is mostly chance. Context matters enormously. Given the wrong situation, even one of the smartest men in the world - in Gladwell's example, a man with an IQ higher than Einstein's - ends up working for two decades as a bouncer on Long Island.
It's an idea that's not just interesting but important. Pregnant with political and social implications, Outliers is a quantum leap in ambition beyond Gladwell's earlier works, departing from amusing pop sociology to investigate a subject that has important implications for the legitimacy of the existing social order. But for his trouble Gladwell has been greeted not with accolades but with a fierce backlash. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani suggested that the "shake-and-bake recipe" that produced Gladwell's prior bestsellers was here deployed in "such a clumsy manner that it italicises the weaknesses of his methodology," and called the book "glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing". A reviewer in Salon essentially called Gladwell a fraud - comparing him to management consultants "who borrow your watch and tell you what time it is - and then walk off with the watch".
The main thrust of the attacks on Outliers has been that its conclusions are entirely obvious: "little more than common sense", as Kakutani phrased it. Or as Isaac Chotiner wrote in the course of a long-brewing Gladwell takedown in the New Republic: "so obviously correct that it hardly merits discussion". And when it comes to the stories of successful individuals, Gladwell's point may indeed seem an obvious one. But Gladwell, whose anecdote-laden approach tethers him to the biographies of winners and losers alike, is reaching for a much larger point: it is on the basis of individual success that society judges individuals, without regard for how or why they were able to achieve it.
Yes, success requires talent and ability. Yes, success requires hard work. But lots of people with talent work hard and never reach the heights that some others do. The difference - what separates the outliers from the pack - is luck. Perhaps this insight is so banal that it barely merits comment. But the obviousness of the point has not stopped us from organising politics and society in most of the world around its denial.
Dissecting the stories of successful individuals may not seem a particularly meaningful undertaking. But what Gladwell's subtitle calls "the story of success" has deep and profound reverberations beyond the personal. Consciously or not, nations and cultures structure themselves in part around their understanding of the causes of success and failure. Societies like those in the English-speaking world, which regard individual success (measured by wealth or stature) as the product solely of individual merit and talent are sure to conclude that prosperity and happiness demand further rewards and incentives for the haves. Those, like the Nordics, who see things differently are more likely to dwell on the opportunities denied the have-nots.
Gladwell cites the extensive research that demonstrates that in the United States the socioeconomic class of your parents is a dramatically better indicator than your intellectual ability for predicting whether you'll graduate from college. Perhaps this is obvious too. But if it were, we might begin to recognise that the richest among us probably don't deserve all they have. Instead we continue to act as if they deserve more and more - not just money, but respect and deference.
The former General Electric CEO Jack Welch is not just a fabulously wealthy man; he is also a best-selling author, a regular TV guest, a podcaster and a general pundit on personal advice, business matters and national economic policy. Warren Buffett is rightly esteemed for his success as an investor - but he is also seen to possess near-miraculous abilities and vast wisdom: one biography of the man known as "the Oracle of Omaha" is titled The Midas Touch. The contents of his annual letters to Berkshire-Hathaway shareholders are regularly reported in major newspapers. But Buffett, like almost every investor and CEO, has seen his good fortune dry up in the last year: how do we know he hasn't just been luckier than his peers?
Consider a hypothetical investor with a strategy that enables him to outperform the S&P 500 40 per cent of the time. To beat the index every year for 20 consecutive years would be extremely unlikely - the odds are about one hundred million to one. But in a nation of 300 million people, on a planet of six billion, surely a handful of these people exist - and they are probably venerated as miracle-workers.
It may seem easy to pick on the likes of Dimon and Buffett - the present economic catastrophe, it is true, has brought renewed scepticism to the pronouncements of billionaire financiers. But it is informative to consider why this wasn't previously the case: the collapse was, after all, widely predicted among observers who didn't have a direct financial stake in the outcome. In a rational universe, those would have been the people with the credibility. But instead, credibility attached to the people with the money - they must have been the really smart ones.
Which brings us back to Gladwell's discussion of Chris Langan, the former bouncer touted as the "world's smartest man". It may be a dubious superlative, but Langan is clearly astonishingly intelligent. As Gladwell explains, his difficult upbringing and a certain interpersonal ineptitude left him unable to finish college - leaving him with credentials unlikely to put him in position to earn million-dollar bonuses on Wall Street. And, of course, these facts are related. For Langan to achieve his ambition of becoming a widely recognised scientist, he would have had to have put in time and work: the time doing homework and labs to graduate from college; then again in graduate school; and then again as an unknown academic publishing papers and writing research grant forms. The point is not that people succeed because of luck rather than hard work. It is that even being in position to do that hard work depends on the vicissitudes of chance and the larger social, familial, political and economic context in which we find ourselves.
But this creates a powerful illusion. Most people are accustomed to thinking in terms of a luck/work dichotomy: Barack Obama hustled to get ahead in American politics, while George W Bush traded on his family name; Bill Gates worked hard to build Microsoft and his fortune, while Paris Hilton inherited hers from mom and dad. Consequently, people who know perfectly well that they worked hard to get ahead become strongly resistant to any implication that there's less to this hard work than they believe. And successful peoplethe kind of people who get to be book critics at the New York Times, for example - certainly do work hard. But as Outliers shows, that doesn't mean they haven't been the beneficiaries of enormous good fortune.
To be fair, the book is far from ironclad. A chapter on the cultural roots of airline accidents is fascinating, but seems marginally related to the main point. And the much-mocked effort to explain Asian success in maths entirely in terms of the ethic of rice farming is genuinely a stretch. But Gladwell's core observation is far from banal, and it has fairly radical implications for how we organise our society. It indicates that the best-off probably deserve to keep less of their rewards, and that the economic floor should be kept much higher. Not merely because our end points on the economic spectrum represent more than our own efforts, but because providing a decent foundation for all is crucial to our collective prosperity.
It's nice to think that people of great ability will make their mark no matter where they came from, but it's not true. Immensely successful people create a lot of value for the rest of us. But to succeed, they need not only talent and hard workthey need a society that gives their talents a chance to shine. And as inequality spirals out of control in almost every country on earth, it's a chance that a smaller and smaller proportion of the population is going to get.
Matthew Yglesias, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author of Heads in the Sand.