Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, is an unintentional layman’s version of the main points of behaviorism. The book’s thesis states that successful people are “grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky–but all critical to making them who they are.” Basically, we can’t take credit for our success nor can we blame those that aren’t successful. Our success is controlled and shaped by environment and that environment is the result of present day conditions mixed with cultural legacy.
The secondary thesis suggests we can improve the chance of success for anybody – success is not a genetic, racial or even culturally specific thing. For example, he writes about how Korean Air and KIPP schools turn things around by changing the environment (language, physical workplace, timing) for people traditionally considered inherently flawed.
“Outliers” is a relatively tame title, probably an attempt to make a catchy title. The idea behind the title is that we typically consider successful people (like Bill Gates) as outliers from the average person – a person with extraordinary intelligence or ability. Gladwell makes the case that the main extraordinary aspect of these outliers lives are their circumstances and opportunities. In fact, it isn’t the highest IQ or the greatest physical skill providing the key advantage even in great circumstances. Being born at the right time or growing up with the “right” cultural disadvantages (legacy of rice paddy labor, Jewish immigration in early 1900s) that produce a certain work ethic or worldview jumpstart the path to success. Combine the right circumstances (often highly improbable and not obviously advantageous) with hard work and you get an “outlier.” Really though, a more accurate, but less marketable title might be “Can’t Take Credit”, “It’s not the person.”
This book is a bestseller already. I wonder how deeply the folks reading it will take it to heart. Its thesis destroys a huge part of our American mythology of self-made success. I can imagine the business guru wannabes who adore Gladwell’s “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” might have a hard time swallowing the idea that they don’t control their own success and they don’t have some a priori advantage. Worse still for those looking for shortcuts in life is the idea that we can’t really predict when some currently disadvantageous situation is actually going to result in the key circumstance in the future.
I enjoyed the book. However, it is not a revelation to me nor will it be to anyone who already integrated the idea that we are products of our environment with some slight variation based on genetics. I wish their was more analytic data behind the anecdotes, even the footnotes are light on experimental and emprical data.
That said this is a MUCH NEEDED popular account of how behavior actually works. I suspect that Gladwell’s popularity will bring these concepts to a wider audience and start breaking down the false beliefs that some of us are just better than others.
[Note: Other books along these same lines are cropping up, such as Talent is Overrated. I’ll keep track to see if this thread continues to gain mainstream momentum.]