Malcolm Gladwell is even wronger


(Photo by Esparta/Flickr)

In January I wrote that Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers incorrectly concludes that random luck plays a much larger role than talent when it comes to success. An article in the April 2009 issue of Psychology Today offers another rebuttal. Author Jeff Pearlman, whom I met while covering an exhibition baseball game in Washington but is probably better known for doing the reporting that ignited the John Rocker scandal, wrote a piece about how certain athletes make their teams better. (There is no link available to the full article.)

We usually recognize winners when we see them — the Michael Jordans, the Wayne Gretzkys, the Derek Jeters, the Mia Hamms, the Terry Bradshaws. They are the ones who seem to overcome all obstacles and carry their teams on their backs time after time. Yet would Jeter, The New York Yankees’ luminous shortstop, be such a winner were he playing for, say, the Tampa Bay Rays or the Kansas City Royals? Would Bradshaw have quarterbacked, say, the talent-deprived Atlanta Falcons to four Super Bowl crowns the way he did the talent-loaded Pittsburgh Steelers in the mid-to-late 1970s?

The answer: Well, yes.

“When you have that one person — that one individual who doesn’t care about anything but winning — it’s an amazingly powerful tool,” says Dawn Staley, Temple University’s women’s basketball coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist. “To have one person who’s a winner, who can manage personalities, who bleeds for the team — I’ll go to battle with him or her any day of the week and take my chances.” Staley pauses. “Sadly,” she says, “those players are hard to find.”

You either believe that people shape their environments or their environments shape them. Staley values — and therefore acknowledges the existence of — individuals who shape their environments.



Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • silver

    Well, that depends on how you’re looking at it. Probabilistically, it’s inevitable that someone will succeed brilliantly for prolonged periods of time, and it’s luck more than anything else that you become that person, since each athlete’s record of successes and failures is effectively random.

    The question is – do potential superstars fail like anyone else, so actual superstars are the lucky ones of the superstar group? Or is every superstar inevitably going to succeed on a greater scale than the rest of humanity? My guess is the former, or we’d have better luck guessing who would succeed.

    So… you’re both right, you’re just weighting the facts differently to come to different conclusions. :)

  • Mike Jerome

    I know that this wasn’t just about sports, but here’s my problem with what you/they’re saying here. Could Bradshaw have taken, what was it, the Falcons to greatness? Perhaps. But lets look at, say, Roger Clemens. Just one of many on a long list that didn’t win a damn thing until put on a overloaded team. I guess I don’t know really where I stand on this issue. Not unlike God, it can really never be proven or disproven…


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: