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Why ‘Outliers’ pisses me off

By on December 7, 2009
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Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers was one of the must-read books of 2008. The latest oeuvre from the author of The Tipping Point and Blink, it took aim at celebrity biographies that claim to help us be more successful by following the inspiration of our heroes.

And it pisses me off.

The central thesis of the book – that our environment and background play a large part in our success – I completely subscribe to.

But Gladwell goes one step further. In fact, he goes several steps further into the realms of predestination and fore-ordination.

In some ways, this is an important book. For example, Gladwell argues persuasively that 50% of people in the world are discriminated against. And it’s not the 50% that you think.

He means anyone born in the second half of the academic year. Outliers puts forward compelling arguments that academic and sporting achievement is closely correlated with being born near the start of the academic year.

Gladwell posits a theory that this is avoidable: teachers and parents start to identify and encourage bright or sporty children when they are as young as five. This is mistaken because the children born in the early part of the academic year may not be more talented than their younger classmates; they are just older. By the time the age difference evens out (say, by the time they are ten), the older children have had more praise, more attention and more access to facilities, cementing the discrimination for ever.

If this is true, it’s a travesty, and educationalists the world over should be working out what to do about it.

But elsewhere in the book, this determinism becomes more pernicious. Gladwell argues that, for example, the ideal background to have to be a successful computer entrepreneur was to have been born in 1954-1955. And he lists all those successful entrepreneurs who were: Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Eric Schmidt, Scott McNealy.

He does the same for successful corporate lawyers in New York. The ideal background was to be Jewish, born in 1930 and to have parents in the garment trade. He produces a list of many such people who were partners in very successful law firms.

I don’t dispute Gladwell’s facts (although I question his methodology). I do dispute his conclusions.

Perhaps you will permit an aside here. When I was at university, a theologian friend of mine first introduced me to the Christian doctrine of predestination. Broadly, God is omniscient, so your path through this life is known.

This made me declare, in a teenage way, that if my every action was mapped out already, and I had no control over my life, my life has no point and I should just kill myself now.

The Church, however, realised this was a problem and added a get-out clause: free will. God knows what you’re going to do, but you still have to decide to do it.

For me, the free will get-out clause isn’t enough. I can’t believe in predestination. And perhaps that explains why Outliers offends me so royally.

Gladwell argues, over and over and over, with sufficient examples to feel compelling (but not statistical analysis), that our world-view is flawed.

Business leaders, sportsmen, academics. We can’t learn anything from reading their stories except that their success was rooted in, nay inevitable due to, their backgrounds.

Which is utter tosh.

Those people worked hard. Other people, with similar backgrounds, didn’t work hard and weren’t successful.

Gladwell also argues that success is not about talent; it’s about opportunity.

And I acknowledge the point that opportunity matters. I believe that civilized societies should work to give as many people as possible the opportunity to be successful.

But then they have to work hard. And fail. And try again. They have to strive and struggle.

To argue that they are merely products of circumstance is to belittle their achievements.

And more than that, it is to dissuade another generation of entrepreneurs to strive and struggle themselves.

Which is why it pisses me off.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • The strange thing is that he says both. He spends time saying that “success” is demonstrably due to 10,000 hours hard work, but then spends time saying it's 100% determined by your background.
    Contradictory, too long, and annoying…

  • Here's an interesting take on Gladwellisms in Vanity Fair
    (thanks to @nachimir and @edstern)

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009

  • murun

    Isn't one of Gladwell's central points in the book that hard work is often *downplayed* in accounts of the success of outliers – hence the large chunks of the book recounting Bill Gates' all night sessions in the computer lab and the Beatles' year in Hamburg? He doesn't say that success is predestined at all, just that blind chance and hard work play as much of a role in success as natural “genius”.