But Can Malcolm Gladwell Explain the Barack Obama Phenomenon ?

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.

4 thoughts on “But Can Malcolm Gladwell Explain the Barack Obama Phenomenon ?”

  1. Aside from the 10000 hour rule, Barack Obama actually meets every criteria outside of that one requirement. He is an outlier in the sense that he is an Afircan American raised atypically from the normal african american experience. Also the timing could not have been better for many of his rise to success. Gaining the senate due to disqualification, key note speakerm advantage of the internetfor campaigning. All factors that are dependent on timing and opportunity. Yes he is very smart but we are talking about a time that US promotes change and tired of conventional politics so it is not totally out of wack that the choice would be of someone with less than 10000 hours of conventional politics.

  2. While Barack Obama may not fit in the 10,000 rule, and grew up in essentially a single parent household, he is every inch a Gladwell outlier. He is smart, yes, but as Gladwell wrote, genius is not enough. You should have the support of your family, culture, and friends to be successful. Because his mother was an anthropologist/academic, his intelligence was further honed through her dedicated tutorial of the young Barack when he was growing up in Indonesia. His grandparents also found a way to make sure he would study in an elite high school, not in any of Hawaii’s pathetic public schools. He didn’t make it just “through his own grit, intelligence, ambition and sense of destiny.” If his mother wasn’t an academic and his grandparents didn’t value education, I doubt even his ambitions would even bring him this far.

  3. Gladwell should start by explaining what he meant by saying that at age 11 Mozart was producing garbage.

    Because I wasnt aware that at age 8 Mozart was producing garbage, take Symphony No. 1 in E flat major as an example.


    Does Dr Phil with an Afro Gladwell hate Mozart because he was Austrian? Or does he really believe that Mozart was producing garbage at 11?

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