Good is fine, but lucky might be better

The Baltimore Sun

I like the way Malcolm Gladwell thinks.

Let me rephrase that. I like the way Malcolm Gladwell makes me think.

The New Yorker essayist and frizzy-haired thinker of deep thoughts has just published his third book on how to look at the world from an unexpected angle.

It is titled Outliers: The Story of Success, and in it Gladwell shoots down that particularly American theory that success is a Horatio Alger combination of brilliance and determination.

Those qualities certainly help. But Gladwell uses his special brand of pop sociology and a collection of intriguing anecdotes to postulate that timing has as much to do with success as grit and brains.

Successful people are also in the right place at the right time and, often, with the right ancestry.

Bill Gates, Gladwell writes, was always a very bright kid, but he was lucky to be in a junior high with an ambitious mothers club that raised the money to buy not only one of the first personal computers available, but one with access to a mainframe for endless hours of programming time.

There might not have been more than one or two colleges in the country with such access, but Bill Gates had it in junior high.

So when he dropped out of Harvard at 21 to start his own software-writing firm, Gates had more than the 10,000 hours of practice considered requisite for mastering a skill. (Gladwell explains the 10,000-hour theory, too.)

Not only that, but Gates was born in 1955. That means he was just the right age to hop on the personal computing wave when it hit.

The same is true of all the other geniuses in the software revolution, including Bill Joy, who was born in 1954 and who wrote the script for the World Wide Web; Apple's Steve Jobs (1955); and Eric Schmidt (1955), chairman of Google.

If they had been born in, say, 1950, they'd have still been in high school when PCs flooded the market. If they were born later than 1955, they might already be working for IBM and unlikely to light out on their own.

Likewise, Gladwell tells the story of the Beatles and their early years in clubs in Hamburg, Germany, where they were hired to play eight hours a night, seven days a week for weeks on end.

The Beatles became the Beatles, he argues, not only because John Lennon and Paul McCartney had amazing talents that blended so beautifully, but also because when the moment came for their breakthrough appearance on the music scene, they had their 10,000 hours in.

(This doesn't explain the Rolling Stones, who are still performing, or the Beach Boys, it is worth noting.)

Gladwell also examines the birth dates of Canadian hockey players and finds that it is no coincidence that the best were born in the first three months of the year.

They were physically more mature than their later-born counterparts and were, therefore, always chosen for the elite teams, the extra coaching and the travel squads.

The result is that the accident of their birth date was an advantage that continued to compound itself year after year.

Imagine, Gladwell speculates, how many tremendous hockey players Canada could produce if it had two leagues - one for boys born between January and June and another for boys born in the second half of the year.

It is in this way that Outliers is more political than Gladwell's earlier books, The Tipping Point, which demonstrated how trends are born, and Blink, which makes the case for gut instincts and snap judgments.

Gladwell asks how many more Microsofts would there have been if many more children had the access to computers that Gates had. In this way, the world is particularly unfair.

"It is not the brightest who succeed," he writes. "Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities - and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them."

Gladwell also paints with the broader brush of cultural heritage: how math is easier for those whose ancestors painstakingly planted rice; how airplane crashes are more likely to happen when the pilot and the first officer come from a culture of deference, and how Appalachian family feuds can be traced to sheep farming or ancestral notions of honor.

And he makes his case with his own story. If it were not for the unearthly beauty of one of his ancestors, an African slave brought to Jamaica, she would not have been selected by the white plantation owner as a concubine and would not have produced children of a lighter skin, and therefore, better opportunity.

It is a lot to take in. And some critics snort that Gladwell's conclusions are nothing more than common sense dressed up as pop science. They complain that his charming little narratives distract the reader from the fact that there is no scientific underpinning to his conclusions.

And the theme of Outliers - that success is not equal parts luck and hard work, but much more luck than hard work - can be confounding to those of us who tell our children that they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up.

Gladwell argues that they can't be whatever they want to be. The world decides what they can and can't be.

But, like The Tipping Point and Blink, you don't have to buy Gladwell's theories in Outliers in order to think about them.

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