Outliers

Outliers Have Outliers, Too
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 13 2008 6:44 AM

Outliers

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Dear John,

When we co-reviewed Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point for Slate in 2000, we agreed his book had much to say about networking and influence but not enough about the inherent quality that word-of-mouth hits usually need. His new book, Outliers, is a more sober look at success for a post-boom audience. But it rejects the Poor Richard self-help tradition. Gladwell is skeptical about innate genius and lonely struggle. He shows that we are the products of our social origins, the centuries-old values of our geographic roots, and even of the exact year and even month of our birth. That's what Outliers has in common with The Tipping Point: Both books apply sociology and social psychology to exceptional performance. The catalogers of the Library of Congress have assigned Outliers the subject headings "1. Successful People" and "2. Success," but they might have added one they used for the first book: "Context Effects (Psychology)."

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Outliers offers hope. Exceptional ability is less important than the good old work ethic. Prodigies from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to computer programmer Bill Joy required the same 10,000 hours of practice for mastery as the rest of us; Mozart just began especially young. The Beatles considered their real break the intensive practice they received playing marathon sets in the Hamburg, Germany, red-light district. Many more of us could excel if we realized the time required and worked more patiently. Math students, for example, may simply be giving up too early in problem-solving.

In fact, Outliers is positively sunny about education and training. Do arbitrary cutoff dates for youth sports give kids born early in the year an unfair advantage? Change recruitment regulations. Does a legacy of social and linguistic hierarchy endanger airline safety by inhibiting timely warnings to captains? Hire outsiders to retrain your staff and shoot up in the safety rankings, as Korean Airlines did. Do American children, especially those in inner cities, lag behind Asian counterparts? Extend the school year.

But context also has an unfair, even fatalistic side. The suave, rich, and neurotic Robert Oppenheimer received only probation and psychotherapy after trying to poison his Cambridge physics tutor (Oppie as proto-Unabomber?), while the equally brilliant blue-collar American who may indeed have the world's highest IQ, Christopher Langan, with uncaring parents and teachers, dropped out of college and still is far from academic recognition. Memo to overscheduling, hovering, upper-middle-class mothers and fathers: Keep up the good work.

Time as well as class will tell. The founders of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems were all born between 1953 and 1956, coming of age just in time to work on a handful of early academic time-sharing computers when other scientists and engineers were still punching stacks of cards. Bill Gates' prep school had rare remote access to one such machine in 1968. The lesson, John, is that we should not only choose our parents wisely but also pick the year they have us.

Seriously, though, isn't Gladwell missing an opportunity to encourage his readers with a bigger picture? Gurus of information technology, recognizing and exploiting new tools, have appeared in every decade. Larry Ellison (born 1944), founder of Oracle, is the third-richest American. And don't forget Michael Dell (born 1965) and Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergei Brin (both born 1973). A dozen or more pioneers of computing, beginning with Grace Hopper (born 1906), who created plain-English programming language, never made fortunes but are revered in industry and academia. Are they unsuccessful?

Gladwell also shows how a generation of New York lawyers from Jewish garment-industry backgrounds struggled during the Depression, while the next such generation, favored by its small size and excellent education, flourished in merger-and-acquisition work originally disdained by snobbish old-line firms. Perfectly true. But many Jewish lawyers who came of age in the 1930s also found a way to succeed in the face of economic hardships and ethnic discrimination. Lawrence A. Wien invented real estate syndication and became a major philanthropist; Chicago's Pritzkers also built a fortune buying distressed properties that ultimately soared in value. Jewish lawyers helped implement the New Deal in Washington, while others (like Daniel J. Boorstin and Studs Terkel) entered academia and journalism. And Edith Spivack, who joined the New York City Law Department as an unpaid volunteer in 1934 and did not retire until 70 years later, became its unsung mastermind, helping avert financial collapse in the 1970s.

Yes, these men and women were atypical. They were outliers; isn't that the book's title, though? As with The Tipping Point, I loved Gladwell's combination of storytelling and academic social science even when I rejected his conclusions. But John, his soft demographic determinism makes me want to paraphrase Cassius in Julius Caesar: The fault is not in our birth cohorts but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Best wishes,
Ed

Edward Tenner, a visiting scholar at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.