Book review of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Published by Penguin, $26.95. This review appeared in today’s edition (August 13, 2009) of the Australian Jewish News.
Back in January 1999, Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian writer who has a Jamaican mother and a British father, published a fascinating article in The New Yorker entitled “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg”. In the article, he described how this Jewish grandmother living in Chicago was a “particularly rare and extraordinary type who seems to know everyone”. From this initial article came his breakthrough 2000 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – a business-marketing-come-social-psychology book that attempted to explain real world phenomena through careful research and highly accessible writing. Why was Paul Revere’s ride so successful? Why did crime drop in New York City? Gladwell explained it all, and in doing so singlehandedly started a highly popular new genre of books along the lines of Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, James Surowieki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist and Gladwell’s own 2005 Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Now Gladwell has turned his attention to an analysis of highly successful people in Outliers: The Story of Success, where he attempts to deconstruct the essential prerequisites for extreme success – people like Bill Gates and the Beatles. In doing so, Gladwell has almost become that which he describes: “Outliers” is a fabulously successful business/non-fiction book: since its first release in late 2008, it has been in the “top ten” of The New York Times best-selling non-fiction list, and recently regained the number one position – and reached number nine in Australian non-fiction best-sellers earlier this month, a full eight months after being published here.
Gladwell’s key: a highly fluid writing style that reads easier than a novel, great vignettes, and a personal touch that quickly engages the reader. In fact his last chapter is about how his mother rose out of highly stratified racial Jamaica to travel to England, meet his father and eventually produce him (a neat touch).
And what does Gladwell conclude are the essential elements of success? Birth date (time of year) DOES matter, particularly when cut-offs arbitrarily assist older children in sport and academics. So does practice: his “10,000 hour rule” postulates that to be superb at anything (music, computers, etc) you must practice at least that amount of time when you are young. And accidents of birth – place and time – also matter a great deal. Bill Gates became successful not only because of his genius, but because of his timing: born in 1955, he was the right age (20) at the right time (1975) at the dawn of the computer age to become an IT mogul. And he had access to unlimited free computing time. Had Gates been born ten or even five years earlier or later, it is very unlikely he would be the household name he is now.
And what does this mean for the Jews, who have frequently been “outliers” throughout history? This is where Gladwell gets even more interesting. He tells the story of Jewish scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the American atomic bomb project, and did so despite a history of severe depression that lead him to try to poison his tutor in graduate school. Oppenheimer was convincing enough to survive that incident and still thrive – all because he had the ability to convince others – which Gladwell marks to his upper-class background which gave him “concerted cultivation”.
Gladwell also devotes a whole chapter to New York Jewish lawyer Joe Flom. Because of widespread antisemitism in old-line Wall Street law firms in the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish lawyers were excluded and had to take work that the “white shoe firms” did not want – litigation and proxy fights. Except a funny thing happened in the 1970s: as money became easier to borrow, as the aversion to lawsuits disappeared and markets internationalised, these Jewish lawyers (including Flom) had a unique set of skills on which to capitalise, and became wildly successful – and very rich and powerful. Gladwell’s thesis is even more complicated, examining demography, birth rates, classroom sizes in New York City (very low in the 1930s) and the quality of New York public schools (the best in the country in the 1940s) to analyse why a certain generation of New York Jewish lawyers did very well.
Gladwell is by no means the first person to conclude that antisemitism has helped the Jews adapt to modernity. Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century examined this in great depth, and Neal Gabler in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood applied a similar thesis to the rise of the Jewish film moguls. But not all smart Jews who experienced antisemitism flourished professionally. Gladwell’s expertise is in showing how accidents of history and time have impacted and made some people successful and others not.