Outliers: The Making of Genius

I originally said that this blog was going to be about movies and other stuff. There hasn’t been much ‘other stuff’ so far (OK, 1 post!), so I’m aiming to boost that a little now. Here’s the first in that category, with a quick look at Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of those writers who has both influenced culture and is very much a product of it. A writer for the esteemed New Yorker magazine,  hard to imagine Gladwell achieving such wide-spread success in other eras. His first book The Tipping Point, was one of the big non-fiction publishing stories of the last decade. To many it came out nowhere to quickly become part of popular and political culture – rock stars, environmentalists and politicians were all dropping the phrase into speech and conversation. It was one of those accessible, eye-opening books that was genuinely convincing and intriguing; but it’s fair to say that it’s success owed much to the ‘infotainment’ culture contributed to by 24-hour news channels and opinionated bloggers. His second book was less eye-catching and, frankly, slightly more dull. Blink attempted to get inside the moments when we instinctively know, feel or sense something that turns out to be reliable and true – it was one of those books that always felt like it was on the runway and never really took off.

So in the post-Christmas haze I turned my attention to Outliers, published in 2008 and on my reading list more or less since then. The book’s aim is to understand what leads to someone being outstanding in a given field – and as you might have come to expect from Gladwell, it’s iconoclastic, verges on the convoluted and is not a little controversial. It’s the sort of book that will suffer for not being his first – The Tipping Point deserved success, but got it partly because it came out of nowhere. Now we know Gladwell’s game, so we are more inured to it – but Outliers is potentially both more explosive and influential.

It starts off on the sort of well-argued but ultimately uncontroversial ground that I remember my mother talking about to explain my relative lack of sporting success at school (though it’s true that’s probably got more to do with general sporting incompetence). He goes into some depth (as well as breadth) to demonstrate that in addition to natural talent, the achievement of sporting success for an individual pretty much depends on when you’re born. Many people may have thought of this before, but no-one has expressed it so convincingly and in such an accessible fashion. It’s as the book progresses that things get more explosive, demonstrating the luck as well as the talent in the background of the Bill Gates story or (more potentially inflammatory), why people from some cultures might be better at maths than others. Most gripping was the story of the turn-around in safety record of Korean Air – the roots of what turned out to be a deep-seated problem that had its roots in an endemic and in many ways honourable aspect of national culture, and how that was addressed.

Frankly, in the wrong hands this could be dangerous material. It’s the sort of stuff that some may bend and twist to more sinister ends of one race’s alleged superiority over another. Gladwell doesn’t have any time for that, of course; and that’s made extra clear from the book’s best segment – a brilliant Epilogue that looks at his own family’s history and what led him to the point he is now at. He undercuts the potential misuse of this material by turning the analysis carefully but entertainingly on himself.

Such a tactic, of course, may not be enough to stop somebody taking passages out of context and turning it to their own, more uncomfortable, ends. Should Gladwell worry about that? Probably not – that’s the role of wise leadership and community accountability; we all have a duty to watch carefully for the signs and seeds of prejudice and evil. That shouldn’t, though, stop us taking Gladwell’s lessons on. We won’t, of course: as a culture we are too closely wedded to the idea that hard work and ability will get us through – salvation and success by our own works. Sadly it’s not that simple. In addition, there’s another debate to be had about what we define success as. That’s not an area Gladwell gets in to, and to be fair it isn’t his purview here. Ironically, it’s the book’s thesis itself that helps explain why the ideas at the center of it most probably won’t be widely taken on. It is something that lies more deeply within human nature. We like to think that if we have the talent then that will be enough, with hard work to get us through. It plays to human pride and self-sufficiency. Gladwell shows us it’s not the simple, and his conclusions really should be more widely read and applied; luck, access to facilities, space and time to dream and create, a nurturing and creative culture – all need to be in place to for success to occur. The question that leaves us with is this: do we have the courage for the journey this would lead us on, the humility to act on it and the vigilance to protect us from those of dubious motives?

Read and enjoy Outliers. It’s entertaining and stimulating. How, though, do we go to the next stage?

2 thoughts on “Outliers: The Making of Genius

  1. Agree with almost all of this, but I think I would quibble about ‘human nature’ being the problem (though of course it IS a problem) – what I think Gladwell successfully debunks is the AynRandian notion of heroic individualism, which is still so culturally influential. In other words, it is the culture (Western rationalist individualist Enlightenment culture) that is at issue – which is what you say earlier of course.
    It also raises all sorts of questions about moral luck, on which I might write something myself later.

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