Defending Malcolm Gladwell.

Yglesias defends Malcolm Gladwell, who has been getting dumped on a lot lately with the release of Outliers.

Nothing he writes is up to the standard of a peer reviewed scientific journal, and everything he writes is about a million times more readable than anything you’d find in a journal. Yes, some of the stuff in Outliers (in particular, the bit about airplane crashes) doesn’t really seem relevant to the main point, but that’s true of The Tipping Point and Blink as well and folks didn’t seem to mind too much. Nor should they mind too much — the bit about plane crashes is fascinating.

At the end of the day, it’s hard for me not to reach the conclusion that the backlash is, not coincidentally, coming just as Gladwell’s hit upon a politically charged topic and reached conclusions that are discomfiting to the very successful. I’ve seen a few people express the notion that Gladwell’s conclusion — that success is determined largely by luck rather than one’s powers of awesomeness — is somehow too banal to waste one’s time with. I think those people need to open their eyes and pay a bit more attention to the society we’re living in. It’s a society that not only seems to believe that the successful are entitled to unlimited monetary rewards for their trouble, but massive and wide-ranging deference.

Beyond that, it’s a society in which the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige has largely gone out the window. The elite feel not only a sense of entitlement, but also a unique sense of arrogance that only an elite that firmly believes itself to be a meritocracy can muster. Gladwell not only shows that this is wrong, but he does an excellent job of showing why it feels right. He explains that success does, in fact, require hard work — lots of it — and that people who think they got where they are through effort rather than good fortune are at least half right. The issue is that in some ways the best luck of all is the luck to be in a position to do hard work at a time when it pays off. Bill Gates, Gladwell explains, put in vast hours programming computers at a very young age at a time when almost nobody in the United States even had the opportunity to put in that kind of time in front of a computer screen.

It’s a discomfiting thought. And an important one.

This hits upon a conversation  I was having with quadmoniker a few weeks ago (which itself was sparked by a conversation about Gladwell’s book on Slate) about the relative merits of Malcolm Gladwell. Besides being a damn good writer, I think that Gladwell’s work (particularly for the New Yorker) is smarter amd more politically charged than people give him credit for being. He seems to be arguing, over and over, for a reexamination of how we allocate resources, or at least throwing stones at the pervasive myth of American meritocracy. I haven’t read Outliers yet, but David Leonhardt calls it a “manifesto,” which doesn’t sound too surprising.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • ladyfresshh

    He seems to be arguing, over and over, for a reexamination of how we allocate resources, or at least throwing stones at the pervasive myth of American meritocracy.

    I agree and doing it in a way that *gasp* includes the masses.

    It very much comes off as resentment from the academic community.

  • WestIndianArchie

    It’s a great read. I highly recommend that everyone pick it up/borrow it from the library/sneak read it @ borders cause you broke and/or trifling.

    Gladwell’s argument isn’t about meritocracy per se…It kind is about merit that you work hard for, not one that you’re born with

    Some factors that propel the average to the excellent

    – when you were born matters. In the case of athletes, a kid that is 7 years old and 364 days is physically stronger and more coordinated than one is 7 years old and 1 day. So a little advantage during the first grade, snowballs. The “star” gets better coaches and more training at an early age. The runt loses interest. Gladwell ends that chapter with how you could adjust the school year, so that the smartest kids weren’t all born in September, October, and December – by staggering the school year.

    – practice matters – the people that become the best @ what they do, put in 10,000 hours . In some cases, it was luck that allowed Bill Gates, The Beatles, Steve Jobs, to practice their craft for hours on end. With the computer guys, back when they were programming, it was hella expensive to do so, and only universities had computers. With the Beatles, they played for a crowd 8 hours a day for a few years, every day. Most artists will never do 1,200 shows in their lives.

    – who your parents are matter – if you’re parents can recognize and then support your talent, you can get those 10K hours in as a youngster.

    – when you were born matters – if you were born in a “small generation”, then you’re going to be able to take advantage of that when the time comes, because there are less kids to compete with, and more jobs that you’re expected to fill. Right now, we should see a demographic trough, because people have less babies when times are hard. 6 years from now you’ll see it in Kindergartens.

    – class matters – where lower class parents teach their children to be self-reliant and avoid people have authority over you, middle class parents teach their children to negotiate with those in power. That makes a huge difference. 2 geniuses in his book. 1 smartest man ever, the other tried to kill his physics tutor. The smart guy had blue collar values and couldn’t negotiate university red tape and pretty much squandered his intelligence. The wouldbe killer, headed up the Manhattan Project.

    – Family and Culture matters – The “hard work” gene? Nope, it’s cultural. Culture can change, and cultural practices can be replicated. When you take the “Asian” approach to learning and effort towards poor children of color, they excel. He chronicles KIPP – the charter school that has longer school days, class on saturday, longer year and sends black and brown kids to college PREPARED by the droves.

    I could go on, but then you’d have the whole book.

    If anything at all, Gladwell overturns the idea of God given talent – and chalks it up to somethings that are within our control, and some that are beyond. That can be very unsettling to certain folks. The idea that we could make some basic changes in our society and be able to really educate Millions. And we wouldn’t need to spend billions of dollars to do it.

    If you’re one of those people that reads to find fault, you can find fault in Gladwell’s work.
    But if you’re the kind of person that thinks a problem is an opportunity in disguise, his work is very very appealing.

    I haven’t been this excited after reading a book in a while. So many ideas.

  • This sounds a lot like the articles he’s been writing on genius and achievement over the last couple of years. Its generally stuff I agree with. I can see why it would annoy people who are caught up in the idea of how special they are though

  • scott

    Does this just boil down to the fact that life isn’t fair? And it is not going to get fair any time soon.

  • I have never read any of his books. Reading this makes me think he has some interesting thoughts on the idea of success and class. Which book would you recommend for me to read?

  • young_

    I agree that Gladwell’s writings are interesting and thought-provoking, and in this case I definitely hope his claims are correct. However, I think people are being WAY too dismissive about the criticisms he receives from academics. (Disclaimer: As a phd student, I’m probably biased). There are very valid reasons why academics hold themselves to higher standards and cringe when they see people like Gladwell non-systematically cherrypick evidence from random stories to put together causal explanations and grand theories about the workings of the human mind and human societies. The summary “WestIndianArcie” provided illustrates a number of ambitious causal arguments that Gladwell really only has very flimsy, suggestive evidence to support. It’s still worth reading, as long as his claims are taken with many grains of salt.

  • quadmoniker

    I was ready to be critical of Outliers. As readable as Gladwell is, I did not like the part of the book that appeared in The New Yorker, and as reluctant to read the book. So I downloaded the audiobook with the free credit I received for signing up for through Slate’s Political Gabfest, a no-lose situation. I still feel that Gladwell wants to use social science to make his arguments without the discipline of a social scientist. And by the end of all of his book’s, it’s really clear what he thinks you should think, which I normally find a little heavy-handed. Surely there are robust studies that would weaken some of Gladwell’s conclusions.

    At the same time, the reason I stopped studying anthropology and sociology after my undergraduate years was because social scientists NEVER made the kind of claims Gladwell makes. Academics look down on anthropologists and sociologists who try to apply their research in practical ways, and rarely communicate to the general public in a way they would understand. It was frustrating; they’re doing all of this important working and talking only to each other. If their work has no practical, important meaning for everyday life, why are they doing it? Outliers explains it. And I have no problem with Gladwell forcefully pointing out the relationship that luck and opportunity have with success. The myth of the individual who can pull him- or herself up from the direst of situations on ability alone needs smashing.