Malcolm Gladwell:

"The Outliers" (2008)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
The world is full of books that study "success". Many of them became best-sellers. Many of them were extremely popular for one year or two. All of them are now sold by used bookstores for less than $1 and virtually nobody remembers them. The British journalist Malcolm Gladwell will not be an exception, of course. All of these books briefly ignite the imagination of those who were already prone to believe the theory before reading them. In this case, it will be the majority of us who, actually, don't and won't make it big, because Gladwell's argument, in a nutshell, is that luck has a lot to do with it.

Like every book that is based on anecdotes instead of statistical research, the "proofs" of Gladwell's arguments are as weak as they can be. He simply examines a few stories and tries to generalize the results, and the stories are not particularly relevant: almost no major scientist, almost no major writer, almost no major painter, etc. There is nothing scientific about this approach of picking a handful of cases and ignoring thousands of widely available biographies of the most influential geniuses of the last century.

Whenever he mentions a professional study, it is an isolated sentence, and no mention is made of how that study was received by the rest of the professional community (i did my due diligence for the first few of them, then found out that most of them did NOT represent the consensus of the community, and gave up doing it for the second half of the book). In other words, it's all "hearsay". It is not that he uses an anecdote to illustrate a claim: he ONLY uses anecdotes. This is a book of anecdotes. And he made no effort to at least pick the study cases from a well-distributed population of successful scientists, writers, inventors, artists, etc: it sounds like it's just whatever interesting story he stumbled on at the library. It has the same value of a book that you, the reader, can write about your friends, trying to generalize whatever is true about your friends.

The sections on the Chinese are simply hilarious. Obviously he has never traveled to China, never studied the history of China, never looked up data about Chinese society, and never even studied the history of Chinese immigrants in the USA.

Gladwell uses a few biographies of successful people (mostly people who got rich and famous, which seems to be his definition of "success") to prove that a) the place and time matters as much as your brain, and b) hard work is crucial. Successful people are "the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities". Talent does exist, but it can be useless if one is not born in the right place at the right time. He mentions studies according to which the relationship between IQ and success is not linear: people with an extremely high IQ don't necessarily do better than people with an average IQ. And he mentions studies according to which people in the Far East work harder than people elsewhere (i guess he never spent time in Germany) which also happen to be the people who do best in math tests.

It turns out that i personally agree with the theses of this book, even if i don't agree with the "data" that he uses to prove them, so i am glad that Gladwell demistifies geniuses of my era and my age (i was born the same year as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others mentioned in this book). It makes me feel a bit better about having achieved so little in my life compared with them.

I have to wonder, of course, what's so special about these claims. Does anyone think that opportunity has nothing to do with success? Does anyone think that the countries with the highest numbers of Nobel Prize winners are the USA, Britain and Germany as opposed to China, India, the Islamic world, Latin America and Africa, because Caucasians are genetically superior? That no African is listed in the rankings of richest people in the world because Africans are dumb? I don't quite understand what is revolutionary about Gladwell's claim that opportunity shapes your destiny.

On the other hand, i find it a bit ridiculous that he hardly mentions cultural factors. There is a reason if nothern Europe did well and southern Europe did not. There is a reason if former Latin colonies like Brazil and Argentina didn't do as well as former Anglosaxon colonies like the USA. There is a reason if so many kids raised in the USA end up with debts while poor immigrants of the same age end up with savings. There is a reason if Jews tend to excel at science, business and music better than others. It is not genetics, and it is not luck. It obviously has to do with the way people are raised in their families and societies. Gladwell's handpicked stories do little to explain why a staggering number of Silicon Valley startups are founded by Indian and Chinese immigrants, some of whom grew up in disadvantaged circumstances.