Gladwell: hero or zero?

One reviewer is disappointed that Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers reveals more about the author’s prejudices than it does the nature of success, while another is won over by Gladwell's emphasis on hard work.

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Here, James Woudhuysen argues that despite the occasional insight, Gladwell ultimately offers superficial explanations as to why certain people succeed. Below, Para Mullan finds Gladwell’s appreciation of the value of work to be a timely riposte to those who view work as a source of stress and sickness

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller Outliers has its moments. In the end, however, its treatment of why individuals and groups ‘make it’ in the worlds of work and education operates as an up-market compilation of liberal prejudices.

Marxism, Leon Trotsky once wrote, does not deny the reality of national differences in culture and outlook. But it seeks the roots of such differences – ‘in the final analysis’, as Trotsky liked to say – in economic development. Perhaps the most bizarre part of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller is his attempt to attribute what he calls the ‘built-in advantage’ of Asian students in mathematics to the very exacting, precise and labour-intensive character of rice cultivation. Here we have materialism without mediation: there is no final analysis, just a direct, magical account of the inexplicable – the kind of account that makes airport bookstalls heave with buyers.

Outliers, Gladwell says, is about the meaning of work. In fact, it is much more about how an eclectic range of factors – date of birth, aptitude for hard graft, being given a happy opportunity, native language – explains personal or national success. Gladwell has vivid examples. He also writes well, even if, jarringly, he often condescends by issuing imperatives (‘Think, for a moment, about what the life of a rice farmer in the Pearl River Delta must have been like’). He is not really to blame for the use to which his theses are put at dinner parties informed by the New Yorker, the magazine he works for. Nevertheless, the blurb to Outliers says a lot about its basic approach:

‘What does Bill Gates have in common with the Beatles? How does your IQ relate to your salary? What can a linguist tell us about airline safety? How does the way your child speaks to an adult affect their success in life? What do rice paddies have to do with maths results? And how can you predict a maths star without even making them take a test? Malcolm Gladwell has the answers… This book will change the way you think about your life.’

Gladwell begins on a rocky hillside near the Pennsylvanian town of Bangor. In the late nineteenth century, Italian immigrants from Roseto, near Rome, settled on that hillside. They formed a new Roseto there, and proved astonishingly free of heart disease. They ate a lot of fat, tended to be fat, and smoked heavily. So why were they so healthy? Because they chatted in the street, were family-orientated, were egalitarian by nature, and were keen on civic organisation. In short, community made them healthy.

Maybe so. Yet in his next chapter, which advances the thesis of the book by looking at Canadian ice hockey players, Gladwell has a different point to make. The thesis is that exceptional individuals are exceptional neither because of their character, brains or DNA, nor because they are ‘self-made men’, but because of ‘hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies’. ‘I want to convince you’, Gladwell writes, that ‘personal explanations of success don’t work’. And through what point does he aim to convince? By showing that ace hockey players in Canada are born in the early part of the year, not the later part.

Not for nothing does Gladwell touch on astrology in his account of prowess with the puck. But his argument is slightly more modern: if a child is born in January, it tends to be put among older kids at school and accumulates skills as a result. If, like me, he’s born in December, then the arbitrary cut-off date represented by the end of the calendar year will tend to make the child turn out more like a dunce.

Does class have anything to do with educational and intellectual success? To his credit, Gladwell, who was brought up in Canada before writing for the Washington Post on business and science, believes that it does. He distinguishes between the surrounding neighbourhood and auspicious family home of the young Robert Oppenheimer, later the father of the Manhattan Project, and the tough childhood and unfulfilled adulthood of another American genius by the name of Christopher Langan. We need not pause here on the uncritical acceptance, in Outliers, of intelligence quotient (IQ) as a meaningful measure of intelligence. Nor need we take too seriously the contrast Gladwell draws between IQ and what he imagines is ‘practical’ intelligence: knowing what to say to whom, when to say it, and how to say it for maximum effect. However, all that we are really left with in the Oppenheimer/Langan story is the importance of community once again, and also of parenting styles.

In these two concepts, more than the calendar and much more than class, Gladwell gives us the altars on which Democratic Party and New Labour theorists love to worship. About education, he is explicit that it is not such mundane factors as curriculum or funding that are fundamental to success. Nor do the quality of teachers and teaching count. No, apart from the length or brevity of school summer holidays, it is those mysterious factors of civic virtue and middle-class ‘cultivation’ by fathers and mothers that bring victory in the adult labour market.

These, however, are not Gladwell’s only prime movers. Also critical is a third thing, cultural difference, or what he calls cultural legacies. In an engrossing chapter titled ‘The ethnic theory of plane crashes’, he usefully brings out how important communication in the cockpit is to airline safety.

Well: since the language spoken by air traffic controllers is English, and the language of pilot checklists is English, it’s probably a good idea that pilots are now fully fluent in English. One can also agree that Korean Air pilots once suffered many plane crashes because, in part, they didn’t speak good English; and one can even agree that, before they received the right training, as they did after the year 2000, Korean aircrews were put in considerable danger by the deference shown by first officers toward captains. Yet is deference really ingrained in the Korean national character, and a deep part of Korea’s cultural legacy? Gladwell quotes a Korean linguist saying that, with a superior, a Korean must rise, bow, not smoke, and must hide his glass when drinking. Perhaps – but this isn’t at all how Korean trade unionists tend to behave, bandannas and helmets and ‘snakes’ and all, when conducting strikes and demonstrations against their oh-so-superior employers.

The vacuity of Gladwell’s analysis is particularly striking in relation to Asians and mathematics. Apart from the rigours of life on the paddy field, the author is adamant that another side of cultural legacy – language – explains much here. While the number system in English is highly irregular, with words like eleven, that in China, Japan and Korea is logical: eleven is ten-one, and 24 is two-tens-four. That difference allows Asian children to learn to count and ‘perform basic functions, such as addition’ far more easily than English-speaking children. What’s more, Chinese words for numbers, and especially Cantonese words, are very short, allowing more numbers to be committed to memory.

That’s all very well. But what Gladwell mixes up is some categories that just happen to be rather important to mathematics. Tilting at his familiar straw man, he writes that ‘We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is’. What he forgets is that simplicity and brevity in counting, and basic functions such as addition, are about arithmetic, and have little to do with mathematical domains such as calculus and algebra.

Of course, an early ability to count may lead to a later ability in the farther, more abstract reaches of mathematics. But why then, if the Chinese grow up so good at arithmetic, was it the Greeks who invented algebra? Why do we owe modern differential calculus to Newton and to Leibniz, who were Europeans? The answers to these questions aren’t easy, and, though they have quite a lot to do with economic and social development, they are certainly not simply economic. By the same token, they cannot just be put down to the form taken by agriculture, or by language.

Despite these facts, Gladwell’s cultural legacies are infinitely powerful. Apparently they explain not just air crashes and mathematical ability, but also why it is that stratospheric law firms in Manhattan tend to be run by Jews. If a Manhattan Jew was lucky enough to avoid growing up in the Depression, lucky enough to enjoy, as a law student, the small class sizes and great teachers that typified the public schools of New York in the 1940s, and then rolled his sleeves up – unlike WASP lawyers – when corporate mergers and acquisitions came to America in the 1970s, then he would triumph. Along with date of birth, Gladwell does at least here acknowledge the significance, to professional success, of wider economic forces (he does the same in relation to the rise of Bill Gates, even if he refuses to mention Korea’s status as a developing country in his account of the woes of its airline industry). However, a central part of his argument about Jewish lawyers is the usefulness of having a family with a history of working in New York’s entrepreneurial garment district.

That, Gladwell says, had a wonderful tradition of meaningful work. The jobs done by Jews were unlike the jobs done by Irish and Italians in New York – day labourers, building workers, domestic servants. To make a living through clothes meant doing market research; it meant negotiating. It was autonomous, in the sense that the garment entrepreneur was his own boss. It was also complex, engaging the mind and the imagination. Last, there was a clear connection between effort and reward. These three cultural factors, Gladwell insists, are what give meaning to work.

Terrific. In a footnote, Gladwell is careful to note that ‘to say that garment work was meaningful is not to romanticise it. It was incredibly hard and often miserable labour. The conditions were inhuman.’

Oh, so arbeit macht frei after all! A job that’s inhuman can also be meaningful.

In World of Our Fathers (1976), Irving Howe movingly described just how inhuman the conditions were that made East European Jews fight German Jewish garment factory-owners on New York’s East Side. Around 1885, a working week of 84 hours in the Big Flat tenement building on the East Side was accompanied by mortality rates nearly double the New York average, and cuts in weekly wages from $15 to $7 in just two years. Piece wages, which linked reward to effort in Gladwellian style, were the norm. Not for nothing did Marx describe them as the form of wages ‘most in harmony’ with the capitalist mode of production.

Surely meaningful work is something done which rewards the worker with feelings of professionalism, achievement, learning, leadership, comradeship; rewards with praise, enjoyment and – not least – generous time wages.

Like Marx, Gladwell recognises that men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Unlike Marx, however, Gladwell is glib. His conclusions act so as eternalise the effects of history, and to change circumstances only in form.

by Para Mullan

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a welcome read, particularly as it celebrates the benefits of hard work and argues that a belief in work is a thing of beauty.

Outliers challenges the spirit of today’s conventional thinking about work, where employees are encouraged to ponder their work-life balance. While spending quality time with loved ones and enjoying leisure is important, the pendulum has swung to celebrating leisure and often ends up denigrating work. We are always being told that work causes stress, that working too hard leads to workaholism, and that ‘being told off’ for not achieving work objectives can be construed as bullying. The message is fairly clear: ‘be careful of the dangers at work’. In contrast to this view, Gladwell sets out to show, through the prism of work, what makes a person successful.

Gladwell puts to one side the views that success is due to one’s personality, intelligence or some special innate quality with which one is born. Rather he advocates that to be successful demands hard work – practice, practice and practice. Although he acknowledges that there is such a thing as innate talent, success for him is about both talent and preparation, with the emphasis very much on preparation. Genes matter less than the environment. Using examples of Mozart and Bobby Fisher (the legendary chess player), he makes the point that it took them about 10 years of hard work to get where they wanted to be. He quantifies this by saying that true expertise needs 10,000 hours of practice.

He shows how the 10,000 hours rule was observed by the likes of Bill Gates and the Beatles. They not only practiced software programming and music respectively, but took every opportunity presented to them to realise their talent.

Of course luck, family background and culture, plus being in the right place at the right time, also contribute to making someone successful. Gladwell makes this point by looking at a couple of nineteenth-century successes – John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. For Gladwell, the fact that they were born in the mid-1830s meant that they were able to capitalise on the period of greatest transformation in American history, 1860-1870. He says that someone born in the late 1840s would have missed that period, and thus not benefited from its advantages.

Using the examples of Jewish immigrants in America, he shows how hard work, imagination and applying yourself to your task pays off. Timing is of the essence here as it was with those Jewish immigrants who came to America in the 1890s. With a background in sewing they were able to exploit the opportunities that were available in the garment trade. For Gladwell, this was equivalent to showing up in Silicon Valley in 1986 with ten thousand hours of computer programming under your belt. In other words, not only did you have to be in the right place at the right time, but you needed to pounce on the opportunities presented to you and then, if this is allied to sheer hard work and effort, you have the possibility of succeeding. He compares the Jewish immigrants to the Irish immigrants who came to America in the same period but did not have the skills to become successful.

Success for Gladwell, then, arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages including when you are born, what your parents did for a living and the circumstances of your upbringing.

While some of his examples showing how culture plays a part in making people successful are debatable to say the least (for example, attributing Chinese people’s strength in mathematics to generations of working in the rice paddy fields), Outliers is admirable for boldly valuing the need to work hard, be persistent and apply a certain doggedness to whatever it is you want to achieve. He effectively echoes that old adage: if at first you don’t succeed, then try again. And don’t ever give up. Such tireless application is important, as is seizing the opportunities one is given.

If there is one thing that will help push any society forward, it is having the determination and drive to persist in attempting to fulfil our ambitions – whatever they may be.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Para Mullan is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. She has been working in human resources for 15 years, currently as operations director at a digital agency.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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