Making It

In the latest New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern has written a critical appraisal of three recent books on talented individuals. She reviews The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin. Reviews of several related books is a distinctive feature of this periodical and they are usually worth reading carefully.

About Schroeder’s book on Warren Buffett, Halpern writes he is “not greedy, he’s just good at what he does.” She says that he isn’t much interested in having money or spending it, just accumulating it. Indeed, he lives very modestly. He led an undistinguished college career, never graduated from business school, and appears to have had none of the breaks or opportunities that are often associated with a distinguished career.

If anything, he has simply been a shrewd investor and I might note a very lucky too. Still his company Berkshire Hathaway (originally purchased in 1962 for $7.50, now selling for $90,000 a share, down from its high of $150,000 per share) was downgraded by Moody’s Rating Service (which he partially owns) and lost 62 percent of its net income last year. One can’t be lucky all the time.

Halpern dwells at some length on Gladwell’s latest blockbuster. Having blogged about it before, I will simply add a few of her concerns. She notes that the heart of his view is that success “cannot be explained by understanding what a person is like but only by where he or she is from. It’s not clearly, precisely why Gladwell considers this a revelation, not a tautology, but he does.” I could never have made this point so well.

Halpern also reinforces my view that one doesn’t build a science of behavior from a series of anecdotes, colorful though they are. She writes, “all stories of success or failure are construed after the fact and the same set of circumstances often leads to fundamentally different outcomes, the explanation for which typically involves those circumstances.”

Her she gets to the heart of the limitations of Gladwell’s method, namely, it simply doesn’t permit one to predict with any degree of certainty what conditions give rise to success or, given a set of the same conditions, who will and will not become successful. You don’t have much of a science without generalizations that produce reliable predictions.

Of course Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is subject to the same criticism. Most people easily spend 10,000 hours and more in their work. But not all of them, by any means, become extraordinary successful. She reminds us that practice does not overcome mediocrity and, as Geoff Colvin points out in Talent is Overrated, the 10,000 hour rule is entirely too vague and ignores the fact that “practice has to be deliberate.”

In describing what this entails, Colvin says, deliberate practice is designed to improve performance, is often guided by a teacher who provides continuous feedback, and is a “highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related…or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.”

In predicting something as elusive as extraordinary success, the facts of human variability have to be acknowledged. Most writers, including those who practice deliberately for 10,000 hours and more, do not become Proust. And most investors whose grandfather owed a grocery store and whose father was a stockbroker and whose mother was mentally ill, all of which were true for Warren Buffett, do not become as successful as Warren Buffett.

As Halpern notes, “it is only a single narrative from which no longer meaning can be derived.” That could also be said of every example discussed by the authors of these three books on successful individuals. Formulating blanket statements about any subject on the basis of examples like this is not much different than voodoo science.