Column: Malcolm Gladwell is wrong

(Photo by ShashiBellamkonda/Flickr)

Malcolm Gladwell does what I do. He uses research to explain human behavior. His unconventional conclusions can be read in his bestselling books The Tipping Point and Blink, both of which I enjoyed. He also has written for The New Yorker and The Washington Post. For the record, he is much better than I am. Gladwell is LeBron James. I am the guy who says, “I just saw LeBron James at the mall. He was buying pants.”
Like many Americans, I received Gladwell’s new book Outliers for Christmas. Outliers attempts to explain why some people are successful. Gladwell fills 285 pages with fascinating research that makes mundane topics like why some people excel at math – the answer is rice paddies – come alive. Gladwell sees the world the way LeBron sees the court. He knows what just happened, why it happened and what will happen next. (I see the world the way former Cavs guard Craig Ehlo saw the court – like a guy with limited offensive skills who is good for the occasional three-pointer.)
My respect for Gladwell runs deep, which is why reviewing Outliers proved to be a difficult task. While I enjoyed learning the information he uncovered, and agreed with some of his minor conclusions, I did not agree with his premise.

Malcolm Gladwell is wrong.

I cannot believe I just wrote that. It is like writing “Bruce Springsteen hates the working man” or “Ryan Seacrest is a national treasure” or “My wife and I are letting Gary Busey watch the baby tonight.” It does not sound right.

Gladwell’s premise is that phenomenally successful people do not create their success. According to Gladwell, people like Bill Gates and the members of The Beatles are the beneficiaries of cultural patterns, timing or luck. Gladwell told New York Hooking Up psp magazine, “The book’s saying, ‘Great people aren’t so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It’s the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they’ve been given.’”

To take one example, Gladwell points out that a young Bill Gates enjoyed the following advantages: 1.) He attended Lakeside High School, which had the rare distinction of housing a time-share computer terminal in 1968 2.) The mothers at Lakeside paid the school’s computer fees 3.) One of his classmate’s parents worked at a company that employed Gates and other students to check code on weekends and allowed the students to use the company’s computers late at night 4.) Gates also worked at a company that gave him free computer time in return for working on software that automated company payrolls 5.) Gates lived within walking distance of the University of Washington 6.) The university had free computer time 7.) TRW, which needed programmers for a project, called a guy who was impressed with Gates 8.) The guy TRW called recommended Gates for a job 9.) Gates convinced his high school to let him spend spring term of his senior year writing code for TRW.

It is easy to see the Gladwellian point of view. Without the high school computer, the mothers and the good networking contacts, maybe Gates does not revolutionize personal computing. But Gladwell does not allow for the possibility that Gates’ drive and intelligence would have found an outlet without those advantages. Gladwell thinks that one of the brightest minds of our time would have been hindered permanently by lack of immediate access to opportunity. Gladwell thinks Gates is lucky. Yet the harder Gates worked, the luckier he got. I agree that circumstances gave him advantages, but I cannot agree that Gates would not have become a phenomenal success if his life had not marched down that exact path. (Had the Microsoft founder forged a different path, maybe Windows would work properly.)

(A man attempting to install Windows software shows heroic restraint by not hurling his Dell across the room. Photo by cogdogblog/Flickr.)

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Outliers is a good book filled with interesting information. I found the chapter on how culture affects piloting an airplane fascinating. But I do not agree with Gladwell’s sunnily cynical view of human achievement. He shortchanges the fact that without talent and drive, it is the circumstances that do not matter.
Much like LeBron, Gladwell is going to miss occasionally.

What I respect about both men is that they like to take big shots.

Note: Next week’s column, which I promise will be funnier, will focus on what I think Outliers got right.