Exceptions to the Rule

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers currently ranks number 2 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; it has been high on the list for the past 15 weeks. As I noted in my February 6th blog, the popularity of Gladwell’s books is a matter of concern to me, as I believe his arguments are only superficially credible. When considered more critically, they are often, in my view, seriously in error.

The best that any reader can do is to approach them with some degree of skepticism. Look for the exceptions to his claims and to the flaws in his logic. That is the only way a reader can go beyond their apparent validity to know if they are genuinely sound. One of the few reviewers who have done that is Joseph Epstein in his Weekly Standard essay, Jack-Out-of-the Box.

At the outset Epstein makes it clear that Gladwell has a practice of setting up straw men as the “received opinion and conventional wisdom” of the day. For instance, Gladwell’s central point is that “personal explanations of success don’t work.” Whoever claimed that was all there was to explaining success?

Gladwell claims that the magical 10,000-hour rule of practice is required to achieve any degree of success. How bizarre! Whoever believed that success in any field does not come without countless hours of dedicated practice? But 10,000 hours? Who can ever know how many hours any genius devotes to his or her craft?

By identifying several exceptions to Gladwell’s arguments, Epstein exposes the major limitations of his account. Any reader might best approach Outliers in a similar fashion. Think of an exceptionally successful person and try to explain his or her success. Is their life history consistent with Gladwell’s view?

Regarding the very considerable success of Bill Gates, Epstein says “Gates wouldn’t have been the success he is today if he hadn’t been born wealthy and sent to a private school that could afford him unlimited time to work on a mainframe computer…” He then points to Steve Jobs, who Epstein claims came from a broken home, grew up with adoptive parents, and had none of the advantages that Gates did. Exception number 1.

Gladwell seems to discount the importance of natural talent, the kind of talent you are born with (leaving open the question of how that occurs). For example, he argues that the time of the year a person is born is crucial for athletic success in hockey and soccer. Epstein counters by saying that over time athletic ability tends to even out and so will physical gifts.

Here, he points to Michael Jordan who reached his full height rather late in his youth. He mentions Brett Favre who is possessed of “physical courage of a kind that date of birth, culture, or anything else can’t explain.” In turn, I will mention Roger Federer whose genius on the tennis court is a matter of “mystery and metaphysics” as David Foster Wallace put it. Exceptions 2, 3, and 4.

Gladwell argues that people born between 1935 and 1945 benefited from belonging to an extremely small birth cohort that in turn led to smaller classes and less difficulty in getting in to the college of their choice. Epstein adds: “…this generation, of which I happen to be a member, has never put a president in the White House. Go figure.”

Gladwell discuss the Beatles at some length and attributes their success to the many long hours they spent in their early years playing all night in the bars and strip clubs of Hamburg. Again, he ignores the natural musical talent that surely played a role in their enormous success. As Epstein says: “But they also happen to have had, in Paul McCartney and John Lennon, two immensely gifted songwriters, along with a fortuitous—and no doubt fortuitous—combination of personalities and talents…” Eliminate Lennon, eliminate McCartney—poof! The Beatles are just four more working-class kids hoping to win the rock’n’roll lottery.” Score another exception or two.

Lastly, Gladwell spends a good deal of time comparing the fortunes of two men of very high intelligence—Chris Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He claims Oppenheimer became the success he did because he, unlike Langan, had the benefit of a superb education, a cultivated, wealthy family, and a “sense of entitlement,” none of which was available to Langan. In response, Epstein writes that Oppenheimer “…was a man of such suavity, subtlety, and layered complexity as to be quite beyond Malcolm Gladwell’s ken and comprehension.”

In his effort to discount the role of natural talent, a keen sense of desire, and distinctive personality, Gladwell simplifies throughout his treatment the incredible complexity and variability that govern the course of anyone’s life. Yes, culture, date of birth, effort, social class, ethnic background, etc are all important. But so are chance, merit, gumption, and all those unknown factors that combine in totally mysterious and unpredictable ways to give rise to extraordinary achievement.

Explaining exceptional accomplishment is surely not as straightforward as Gladwell implies. There are limits, boundary conditions, if you will, for each of the factors he identifies. It is his failure to acknowledge these constraints and to make any effort to deal with them that make Outliers so misleading and presumptions to me. Epstein is to be praised for making the effort to confront these realities squarely.