Outliers seems, initially, to be an inadvisable pairing of author and subject. Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer for that august cultural magazine, The New Yorker, and author of two exemplary pop-science bestsellers, The Tipping Point and Blink, goes and writes a book on success – thus entering a subgenre whose foul-smelling precincts are overrun with charlatans, profiteers, and New Age fakirs. But, happily for him and us, he’s skirted ignominy by having written not some exhortative how-to guide, but a sober and far-ranging investigation of human achievement that rebuts some received wisdom on the subject.
Gladwell begins by arguing that those “self-made” individuals we romanticize, who come from nothing and rise to the pinnacle of their chosen vocations on merit alone, simply don’t exist. Instead, he insists, high achievers “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies” that ultimately determine their status. Moreover, these same people who capitalize on their early good luck work much harder than their rivals; mastery in any calling, apparently, only arrives after 10,000 hours of training and study (a rather less appealing prospect than the wish-yourself-wealthy-and-fabulous strategy promulgated by The Secret).
While it’s hardly a revelation that toil and connections and serendipity beget professional reward, Gladwell provides a surfeit of curious, even alarming, examples to prop up his thesis. In the course of his discussion, we learn that 40% of elite hockey players are born between January and March; that off-the-chart geniuses, collectively, accomplish no more in life than their randomly sampled peers; that contentious and irreverent flight crews are less likely to crash planes than deferential ones; that Asian students’ excellence in mathematics owes much to rice-based agriculture.
Gladwell’s writing is clear and colloquial throughout, and his chapters are deftly structured, each one introducing new material while simultaneously reiterating and amplifying what came before. But after plowing through the dramatic anecdotes and gee-whiz factoids, adult readers are left to contend with the desolating assertion that the quality of their lives was determined decades ago by ancestral migration patterns or a summertime birthday or skipped piano lessons. In the end, I was yearning for some consoling piffle about, say, dream analysis or Mayan numerology, to convince me, however briefly, that the world could still be mine for the taking.