28.7.09

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Book Review


Malcolm Gladwell, set with his second book Blink to become my Chris Langan, has inexplicably turned himself into my Robert Oppenheimer instead. The preceding statement will, in all likelihood, mean nothing to you unless you’ve read Gladwell’s third book Outliers. Allow me to rephrase. I began  Outliers  with an appropriately, professionally even, open mind. I was prepared to like Gladwell’s latest foray into feature length non-fiction, but the man had to work for it. Having just turned the final page in  Outliers epilogue, I must make two admissions upfront. First, Gladwell did work for it. Second, if my mind were modestly open when I began this book, Gladwell managed to barrel through it full force. How he did so has left me stumped and more than a little wanting to have lunch with the man.


The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.


Malcolm Gladwell, keeper of an enviable, and most likely painful at times, social conscience, spins his typical science-light, anecdote-heavy yarn in  Outliers . With The Tipping Point and  Blink , NYT Bestsellers both, under his belt, Gladwell has a formula (nifty intro story, offer one main objective, deeper chapter one, second objective, full-on assault…), and he sticks to his winning blueprint with  Outliers . Why not? He doesn’t just write NYT Bestsellers, which any Danielle Steele can do; Gladwell writes #1 Bestsellers. Hell, I’d stick to the formula, too.


Gladwell’s courage in  Outliers , a less daunting topic overall than the denser “functional frugality” he attempted in  Blink , is found in the baring of his own social conscience.  Outliers  does nothing short of raise a call to arms. Consider the sentence extracted above. “The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.” Buried near the end of the book, this sentence even more than what makes a financial, legal, computing, or mathematics success, is the core premise of Gladwell’s story. I confess a bit of shock and a great deal of admiration. This is not the day of heros; these are not the times of revolutionaries. 


 Outliers  purports to dissect the reasons successful men (and are they really all men, Malcolm?) become the successes they are. Early in his narrative, Gladwell eschews the mythos of the self-made man and insists there are reasons beyond ability and sheer force of will that can explain, that he will use to explain the meteoric success of men such as Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, and even the entire Canadian Hockey League. Each chapter attacks at least one of these stories (where more than one, because they are intimately related), and Gladwell approaches each with glee. His enthusiasm is infectious. His desire to understand the components of success drags the reader along - dragged this reader along - on an exhilerating ride that is at the same time more measured than the breathlessness of Blink.


Gladwell works with and continually returns to two foci throughout the book. Using expert analysis and, often, scientific research, he bolsters his belief that specific combinations of circumstances afforded opportunities to the success stories examined. That is, Bill Gates would not have grown up to found Microsoft had he not been a student at a particular high school in a particular year, a school that just happened to purchase a particular type of computer when no other high schools (and very few colleges) had them, had he not then spent countless hours on that computer and, later, another at a nearby university, and so on. It wasn’t, according to Gladwell, Gates’ genius alone that created the Bill Gates we know today. His genius coupled with opportunity, choice, and outright luck did. All right. I’ve got a doctorate in social psychology. I can buy that. In fact, I’m in the business of selling that. 


Gladwell’s less obvious focus grinds along slowly between the lines. Understand what creates these seemingly extraordinary individuals, and we can replicate those opportunities, those circumstances with greater frequency and on a scale so as to maximize the likelihood of creating more of them. The individuals, that is, creating more success stories such as Gates and the lot with which Gladwell populates  Outliers 


One of the greatest strengths of  Outliers  lies in the detailed treatment of what Gladwell terms cultural legacy, that something greater than immediate environmental influence which can make the difference between success or failure for similar individuals. In this section, Gladwell discusses the southern (American) “Culture of Honor,” a phenomenon describing the often violent and always personal ways in which southern American men tend to react to perceived personal insult and injury. Gladwell discusses one of my favorite social psychological experiments, a study conducted at the University of Michigan by Cohen and Nesbitt. A small thing perhaps, but it pleased me to no end to see this study used, as there would have been many from which Gladwell could have chosen, and to see it explained so thoroughly and so well. In this chapter, Gladwell clearly displays his growth as a writer for the lay audience in blending narrative with research.


I’ll be honest. There are a half-dozen pages or so in my copy of  Outliers  I tagged for nitpicking in this review. In framing the tone of what I wished to say, I found most ceased to matter. They are small things in the main1, and they don’t in any way detract from what I consider a very good book and a courageous one at that. Prefacing remarks aside,  Outliers  is not perfect. In his acknowledgments section, Gladwell thanks two women for “fact-finding and research,” and though I don’t know where to point the finger, a rather glaring error is made in discussing the Cohen and Nesbitt study. Testosterone and cortisol are referred to as “the hormones that drive arousal and aggression,” and while there is a reciprocal nature between testosterone and aggression (testosterone is secreted both prior to and just after aggressive behavior), cortisol is a hormone released in response to arousal. That is, arousal causes the release of cortisol; cortisol’s release does not trigger arousal. 


Gladwell, later in the book, references a study by Erling Boe in which Boe found that he could correlate the countries from which students taking a standardized math exam originated and their scores on that exam. Further, the scores were, apparently, correlated perfectly. That is, Boe could predict with perfect accuracy where a student would fall on the exam simply based on that student’s country of origin. The mediating variable in the study was a lengthy questionnaire completed by students prior to taking the exam (120-ish questions). Some students completed the entire questionnaire; some left a few items unanswered; some left more unanswered than others. The number left unanswered directly corresponded to students’ countries of origin. This finding did not surprise Gladwell. He related the correlations between country of origin and exam score back to cultural legacy, in part because the countries from which students answered the most items on the questionnaire and scored the most highly on the exam were all Asian countries, and Gladwell had already demonstrated in his culture section the work ethos of those regions. However, Gladwell disappointed me when he failed to draw two equally valid conclusions from his own book. 1) Asian students are better at math than Western students. 2) Asian individuals have a high-power distance (to authority) compared to countries of origin of other students tested with that exam. What? All right. Yes, Boe (or Gladwell) could predict the Asian students would do better based on their country of origin because students from those countries do do better at math exams and also because students from those countries will complete the questionnaires more thoroughly than students from low-power distance countries in an effort to defer to authority (those asking them to complete the questionnaire). 


This is an extreme example, perhaps the most extreme in  Outliers , but it is a problem that crops up from time to time.  Gladwell makes excellent use of anecdotes and research to support those anecdotes. He has a lovely theme he pursues doggedly throughout the book, and he maintains his focus better than in any work in the past. If there is any substantive lack in  Outliers , it is Gladwell’s dropping a thread too soon or forgetting to pick it back up later. His case would be stronger for it, and a case this compelling on its merits deserves all possible opportunities to shine.


So.


This is the point where I typically make a recommendation, yes? Do I recommend  Outliers ? Absolutely. Without reservation. The world needs to read this book. There were moments of complete candor and personal revelation in this book that brought tears to my eyes, and there were moments when I felt the need to check my closet because I was certain Malcolm Gladwell had stolen my personal soapbox.  Outliers  speaks of important things, and it manages to do so without being pedantic or preachy, which I think makes it rather important all on its own. 




1Although I agree with some of the conclusions, I overwhelmingly disagree with the treatment of education in Chapter 9, “Marita’s Bargain.” Theodor Billroth said, “Statistics are like women; mirrors of purest virtue and truth, or like whores to use as one pleases.” Little in this review could be gained by my re-writing this chapter or even critiquing it to the degree to which I would be satisfied. I believe the sociological study on which the chapter is based is primarily the issue, and Gladwell seems to do his part in maintaining restraint when he formulates his conclusions. However, as so very many people have read or will read this book, I am troubled by this chapter. My key exception to Gladwell’s own conclusions in Chapter 9? Malcolm, I agree that Katie and Alex have vastly different summer days, but Katie’s aren’t unstructured or carefree. Hers are spent at daycare, while Alex has much more of his mother’s time. There is the crucial difference Lareau didn’t mention. Time.

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