Friday, September 30, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell Investigates "The Outliers"

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in November 2008)

In Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful new book, “The Outliers: The Story of Success”(Little, Brown, $28), the New Yorker writer explores the meaning of success, and how the outliers, the human anomalies in society like billionaire Bill Gates or the members of the Beatles, become the successes they are, how the community we are in forms us, why timing is essential and how class has a direct effect on the success or failure of even the most brilliant people.

Like his mega-bestsellers “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” Gladwell pulls out fascinating scenarios, such as why most successful Canadian hockey players are born in January, February or March, and why the 10,000 hours that two teenagers named Lennon and McCartney spent playing in German strip clubs in Hamburg led to their explosive success as the Beatles, and why some of the most powerful lawyers in New York were born in the 1930s and were the children of Jewish garment workers. Gladwell takes the readers on brilliant tangents that are then carefully assembled into the meaning of what success is and how it happens.

Gladwell, 45, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe in New York City.

Q. What was the first part of the book?

A. I guess it was the Jewish lawyers. It was such an obvious thing. All the guys come from a similar background--they were born in the 1930s and their parents were Eastern European immigrants who worked in the garment industry. I wondered how the culture put them at an advantage.

Q. Why does it take 10,000 hours to master both rock-and-roll music and computers?

A. I found patterns, consistent patterns, with incredibly long periods of apprenticeship. Whether it was the Beatles playing in the Hamburg clubs for eight hours a day, six or seven days a week, or a teenage Bill Gates sitting in front of a computer screen for thousands of hours, it all seemed to make for powerful insights, which led to the idea of work and its centrality to success.

Q. Why do the birthdates of Canadian hockey players matter?

A. I was trying to address these powerful, contextual idea. How important is individual effort and how large a role does the outside community play in the lives of these young hockey players? I am not introducing totally novel ideas, but in the end the birthdate matters for physical maturity, and that affects the attention the children receive .

Q. In Lewis Terman’s genius study in the 1920s, a researcher thought he could select out the bright men and women who would run society. What were the shocking results?

A. Terman believed that intellect would triumph over everything, that if you have a fine mind, nothing can stop you. Terman found out after years of following his kids that there was a shocking disparity. Most of the poor kids in the study did not do well in later life. It turns out that class plays a big factor in success.

Q. At one point in the book, an upper-middle-class boy, who turns out to be black, is being taught the rules of the class game, while a poor white mother is unable to advocate for her child in the face of authority. What does race show here?

A. I found that it was important to have this racial reversal in the book. Class is more important than race. We know that if we come up from a privileged background, that we get a leg up in life. I came from a privileged environment. My parents , a math professor and a family therapist, did not have money, but we were still privileged, not in material possessions but in knowledge. This knowledge gives you everything in the world. This is actually a liberating idea in this time of economic turmoil. Even if a family loses its money, this does not imperil the child. A child is only impoverished if a parent is not actively involved in the child’s development.

Q. At the end of the book, you address your mother’s escape from rural poverty in Jamaica, which was fostered by both your brilliant grandmother and the social unrest that opened up educational opportunities for her. What was the experience of reporting on your mother?

A. Much of what I’d learned about my mother was during my reporting. I had an oversimplified, romantic view of my mother’s history. Her story was actually much more remarkable in real life.

No comments: