Outliers

Nothing Succeeds Like Success
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 14 2008 2:16 PM

Outliers

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Dear Ed,

Yes, as John McCain often reminded us during the campaign, suffering can be a terrific character builder. Your examples of men who triumphed in spite or because of their disabilities reminded me of Marianne Moore's poem "Nevertheless," which begins: "you've seen a strawberry/ that's had a struggle; yet/ was, where the fragments met, a hedgehog or a star-fish for the multitude of seeds."

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It's true that prison, torture, disability, disease, and other misfortunes leave most of us embittered and broken. So we may be inclined to believe that some lucky souls simply have the temperament to overcome trauma and even be inspired by it. Gladwell is quite right to resist this fatalistic conclusion and to look for other, more useful correlates of success than innate traits. But as you remarked in your first post, Ed, some of the lessons that emerge from his case studies end up being just as restrictive as those he's trying to refute.

We learn that in 1968, a "Mothers' Club" at an elite private school in Seattle raised funds for a computer center better than those found in most universities; a student named Bill Gates, whose parents had placed him in the school so he would have these opportunities thus became a master programmer while still in eighth grade. Similarly, high-IQ children tracked for decades by psychologist Lewis Terman were much more likely to succeed if they had affluent, well-educated parents. At the opposite end of the spectrum is poor Christopher Langan. Although blessed with an IQ of 195, he never made much of himself because he grew up in a desperately poor home "dominated by an angry, drunken step-father."

So some people are just born to the right parents in the right place at the right time. Hard work helps, too, Gladwell emphasizes. He notes that achievers as diverse as Gates, lawyer Joe Flom, Mozart, and the Beatles spent at least 10,000 hours honing their skills at an early age. So, um, practice makes perfect? Tell us something we don't know, Malcolm!

Gladwell tries to do just that when he investigates why 70 percent of the Canadians in the National Hockey League were born in the first half of the calendar year. The reason is that youth hockey programs initially accept all boys born in a given year and then select the best players for the best teams. Boys born just after the Jan. 1 cutoff date are older, and hence bigger and stronger, on average, than boys born later in the year. That makes them more likely to be selected for the elite teams, where they get the best coaching and play the most games, compounding their early advantage.

Gladwell calls this phenomenon the "Matthew Effect" after this Biblical passage: "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." The effect occurs in many other sports around the world—and in schools. Beginning in kindergarten, the oldest children in each grade are more likely to be placed in accelerated-learning programs, again giving them an "accumulative advantage." International studies of fourth graders have shown that the oldest children score as up to 12 percentage points higher than the youngest.

So the smart get smarter, the strong get stronger, and so on. That's life. But we don't have to accept this state of affairs. Gladwell proposes that athletic and academic programs sort children according to time periods shorter than a year. While cumbersome, this system would be much fairer and more efficient at recognizing talent. Schools and sports programs could also delay sorting according to talent until children are older, when age-related effects have decreased.

The "Matthew Effect" identifies a nontrivial and—most important—solvable problem. So does the chapter on the cultural causes for airline accidents. But what Gladwell calls the "Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" has little to do with the "Matthew Effect," beyond sharing some vague connection to "success." The case studies in the book seem to have been chosen for their intrinsic interest rather than any coherent, mutually reinforcing perspective.

Outliers is nonetheless destined to become a best-seller in spite of its flaws—and certainly in spite of anything that we or other reviewers say, Ed. Gladwell's track record ensures that the book will be widely publicized by the media, prominently displayed in bookstores, and eagerly embraced by readers. Nothing succeeds like success.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His next book, The End of War, will be published in November.

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