Gladwell Does it Again

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (subtitle The Story of Success). I found myself reading it breathlessly – I couldn’t get to the next part fast enough.

If you haven’t read any of his work, here’s what it’s like: Gladwell takes a social phenomenon he’s noticed and offers up examples of it. (And it really seems as though that’s how it works for him – he’s walking around on the planet, observes something in society, thinks to himself “hey…” and then starts doing research on whatever he noticed.) The examples he uses are quite disparate. I’m used to reading work like this that’s all in one discipline, like books about education that are about a particular phenomenon and use several different child case studies to illustrate. Gladwell manages to pull from all sorts of different realms.

This latest book is about what it really takes to succeed, as distinct from what we go around thinking and saying it takes. We tend to wave success off as though it’s “just” one thing or the other – “he’s JUST a genius,” or “he’s JUST a really hard worker.” (The things we choose are generally things we ourselves are not, so it gets us off the hook for disappointing ourselves.) What’s really cool about this book is that Gladwell actually looks at all the different things that might be contributing, and then keeps pointing out that it doesn’t seem to be any one thing.

You can imagine that this is helpful stuff for me, over here in my little corner of the world trying to convince people that things maybe aren’t as rigid and unyielding as they may seem; that it may actually be possible to live a successful and productive and fulfilling life without suffering the stay-in-your-seat lot of traditional schooling. In much the same way I keep insisting that it’s not as simple a matter of school is good and you should go or school is not good so you shouldn’t go, Gladwell seems to be saying that while cultural legacy and genes play a part in success, so do the choices we make along the way. What I took from the book is that success does not happen one way as the result of one set of things or the absence thereof, and we shortchange it, ourselves, and the future when we pretend that it does.