A Review of “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

Success, Malcolm Gladwell says in “Outliers,” is a gift. Talent and hard work are essential, of course, but without a dose of good luck, determination and aptitude alone won’t be sufficient. And who better than Gladwell to write about good timing and success, given his extraordinary experience with both?

Gladwell’s reporting in “Outliers,” as in his previous best-sellers, “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” follows a standard narrative trajectory: Start with an account of the conventional wisdom to get your readers’ heads nodding. In “Outliers,” this process of acquiescence begins with a story from that perfect meritocracy, competitive sport. (As a Canadian, Gladwell naturally chooses hockey to illustrate his point.)

“If you have ability,” Gladwell writes, summarizing the standard belief, “scouts and talent spotters will find you, and if you are willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you. Players are judged on their own performance … and on the basis of their ability.”

Then Gladwell puts up his hand — not so fast, he cautions. A simple analysis of the roster of birthdays of players participating in the top tier of Canadian junior hockey, he writes, undermines the standard story. An overwhelming number of players are born early in the year, and their success is not due to some quirk in genetics that confers an advantage on people conceived in the spring. The benefit, instead, is a product of the sport’s administrative structure, a bureaucratic artifact. Because youth teams are organized by birth year, within any given cohort — say, of boys born in 1988 — older boys have a decided advantage.

The culture of hockey blesses some boys and curses others. Boys born in January are generally bigger and stronger and better coordinated than the boys born in December, who, after all, are almost a year younger. And once these older boys begin to succeed, their advantage amplifies as they get better coaching, more practice and stronger competition. That’s why, among professional hockey players, a disproportionate number have January and February birthdays.

Gladwell finds numerous other instances where good timing has conferred an advantage that gifted people — whether software gurus, musicians, lawyers or 19th-century business tycoons — have been able to leverage into great personal achievements. A combination of historical circumstances and cultural practices collides with talent to generate the conditions for success.

The persistence of cultural practices, even in the face of new technologies and altered realities, has been a continuing source of surprise to social scientists, Gladwell writes. People who grow up in the South, he reports, have the emotional makeup of the touchy ancestral Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled there. Their so-called “culture of honor” persists, even when the conditions giving rise to it have long since vanished. And there can be a downside to this sort of persistence, as in the case of what Gladwell calls “the ethnic theory of plane crashes.”

Korean Air once had a disturbing record of crashes, attributable not to poor maintenance or any incompetence on the part of Korean pilots but to cultural practices of deference and linguistic indirection — that is, it’s up to the listener to figure out the speaker’s meaning in Korean, while in English it’s the speaker’s duty to make himself clear. This was a deadly trait in the cockpit, when co-pilots were unable to bring themselves to tell the captain, “Sir, we’re about to hit that mountain.”

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” to indicate a small, persisting unit of culture, in effect our social DNA. Korean Air practiced a form of memetic engineering to change its cockpit culture. It coached its pilots out of old habits and made sure their English skills were strong. Gladwell points to a similar form of meme therapy applied to a Bronx middle school, where not just the expectation of success but techniques to achieve it are able to eradicate an educational culture of hopelessness. Cultural patterns are powerful, he argues, but they are not intractable barriers to achievement or to change.

Gladwell is such a clear and persuasive writer that it’s hard to find fault with his arguments, but the stories in “Outlier” can take on a just-so quality. For example, he makes a compelling case that the linguistic rules governing the expression of numbers in Chinese, Korean and Japanese make it much easier for children in those countries to learn arithmetic than it is for English speakers, where the verbal expression of quantities is irregular. Asian schoolchildren thus have an advantage learning math.

But that’s just part of the explanation for the success of Asian students, Gladwell continues. Rice growing, he argues, which requires much more work and organizational intelligence than dry-land farming, created a culture where relentless year-round effort was valued and promoted. Gladwell further insists that because its cultivation requires such focused effort and knowledge, rice is “a crop that doesn’t do very well with something like slavery.”

How, then, to explain the success of the great 18th- and 19th-century rice plantations in the low country of the Carolinas and Georgia, which spawned the grandees of plantation society who then drove the ideological arguments upholding slavery and thus paved the groundwork for secession? Planters buying in the Charleston slave market paid a premium for slaves from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. Why would they have done that if, as Gladwell insists, rice cultivation and slavery were incompatible?

And while students from Asian countries may do well in math, Finnish schoolchildren score highest on the most comprehensive international tests in math and reading. The Finnish way of saying numbers may be more “Asian” in character, but they sure don’t grow rice in Helsinki. So if there is another explanation at work, it casts at least some doubt on Gladwell’s argument, which strains to be comprehensive.

Still, “Outliers” is a provocative and stimulating book, a pleasure to read for its clear prose and its vigorous intelligence. Gladwell’s timing once again is impeccable, and with the benefit of his good Canadian education, he’s equipped to share his grasp of the zeitgeist with an audience eager for enlightenment.

Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown
$27.99, 320 pages

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