Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Some Reflections on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

If you haven't had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell's newest book Outliers: The Story of Success, get busy. It's number three on the NYT bestseller list, so I know a lot of you have already read it, but if you haven't I'll tell you it provides a lot of food for thought in a quick little package.

(My library only had the large print version--and I am getting near that age for reading glasses--so maybe that's why I seemed to fly right through it. Maybe I need to get all of my books in LARGE PRINT.)

There were a few interesting premises:

1. That invariably we need to devote at least 10,000 hours of practice to our area of interest in order to achieve mastery.

2. That no one achieves success in a vacuum and that many of the most successful people in society, while extremely talented to begin with, benefited from a lot of lucky breaks and fortuitous situations. Fortune smiled on them.

3. That we underestimate the effects of our cultural heritage, which can persist for many, many generations. He used the example of the feuding Scotch-Irish settlers in Appalachia (the Hatfields and McCoys and their ilk). He believes their tendency towards violence is a result of the "culture of honor" of their herding highland ancestors back in Ireland and Scotland. Herders, Gladwell points out, are always vulnerable to raiders, so they must fiercely defend what's theirs, unlike the settled farmers who didn't run the risk of having their entire livelihood snatched in the dead of night. The herder needed to show he was tough and prove that it wasn't worth the risk to provoke him. But, of course, there always were provocations and when there was, the herder (or Appalachian descendent) would often defend his honor to the death. Gladwell also cited recent studies that showed current subjects from Appalachia are far more twitchy and likely to take insult than people from other regions. So the vestiges of an old culture are still affecting behavior today.

Gladwell gives many other examples--the rise of a group of Jewish lawyers in New York, the superior math skills of the Chinese, the story of Gladwell's mother...all of them show what happens when you have a fortuitous mixing of chance, a positive cultural legacy, the right timing and determination. He also gives a number of tragic counter-examples.

Outliers provided me with food for thought concerning two different issues I've been grappling with in recent years. Those issues are: the importance of place in shaping culture (hence the reason I've been researching environmental determinism of late), and the way modern society defines success. I think each of these issues deserves its own post, so I will be working on those today.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. My husband mentors a young man in prison who asked him to read and discuss this book with him. The young man was raised (if you could call it that) by a woman who neither nurtured nor fed him. He stole food in order to survive which eventually landed him in jail. He was searching for hope that despite his past, he may make something of himself. It seems that opportunity is presenting itself as several people consider him worth mentoring. But I was unable to glean from the book if Gladwell thought redemption from a poor past possible.