Malcolm Gladwell made both Time and Newsweek issues this week and was featured both for himself and his new book “Outliers“. Outliers, subtitled “The Story of Success” follows the the basic approach of his other bestsellers, The Tipping Point and Blink, which started the current best-selling genre termed as “pop economics”. Although his books go well beyond economics to encompass sociology, psychology, science and politics. He seeks to explain the story behind the story.
Outlier is a noun which refers to: 1) something which is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body and/or; 2) a statistical observation that is markedly different from the others of the sample. By this definition Gladwell is an outlier, and it makes sense for him to write about other outliers, or those people we usually consider as extraordinarily “successful”, whether they be lawyers, nuclear physicists, rock stars, Silcon Valley billionaires or best-selling authors.
Typically, his explanation for their success is counter-intuitive, or different from what conventional wisdom says. Exceptional achievement is less about intelligence, ambition and other personal qualities than environment, opportunity and, yes, plain dumb luck.
And as always, Gladwell has the stats to back it up. And the compelling stories to illustrate his premises, like that of Chris Langan, one of the brightest persons on the face of the earth in Gladwell’s estimation, who ended up as a horse farmer in a tumbledown farm in rural Missouri. Along the way, he explains the connection between rice paddies and math proficiency, the ethnic theory of plane crashes and the generational legacy of violence. One of the most fascinating and what will probably stick in the public’s mind is Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory of success. It takes about 10,000 hours, or approximately 10 years, for someone to attain an outstanding level of excellence, ascendancy and even fame in any given field. If he had put in 10,000 hours, and with a little luck and proper timing, any Joe Shmoe could have been Bill Gates.
It’s a most fascinating journey, and Gladwell tells it in his breezy, animated writing style. This is sure to be another bestseller and will add to the Gladwell mystique. As Time magazine points out, he is one of those clever people who actually looks clever. Consciously or not, he even has a mop of expansive, spirally hair reminiscent of Einstein.
But can Gladwell explain the phenomenal rise to power of Barack Obama ? Before he became president-elect he was just a first term Senator from Illinois, his experience certainly far short of the 10,000 hours prescribed to master the intricacies of Washington politics. A product of an interracial, cross-cultural marriage, he was abandoned by his father and raised for a time in a foreign, far-off (for him) land. While he was later raised by doting grandparents, his childhood or surrounding environment while growing up shows none of the Gladwellian legacies which would ensure his success. Yet, he made it to Harvard Law, and even became editor of the law review. But nothing in his background indicates that he would make it this far except through his own grit, intelligence, ambition and sense of destiny. He had luck on his side, certainly, but that would be it as far as external forces influenced the trajectory of his career.
Barack Obama is sui generis, or as described by Newsweek:
… [It] is increasingly clear that Obama, is, in fact, the unique product of a unique moment in America’s history… It took both the worst crisis and perhaps the best organized campaign in a century to break the color barrier, and generations may pass before American voters choose another black man, or a Latino or Asain or Jew, to be president.”
Barack Obama doesn’t easily fit into Gladwell’s analytical framework.