Book Review

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John Stern
Malcolm Gladwell
Friday, May 1st 2009
May/Jun 2009

Of all the quotations he could have chosen to open his latest sociological survey, Malcolm Gladwell selected Matthew 25:29, the chilling pronouncement of Jesus that at the last judgment everyone who has will be given more, while everyone who does not have will lose even what he has (15). Gladwell then goes on to unpack the thesis of his book: successful people do not achieve their accomplishments by their own hard work alone, but because of external conditions, or, for lack of a better word, luck.

Successful people "may look like they did it all by themselves," Gladwell explains, "but in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot" (19). His examples are often intriguing, drawn from a number of fields: Canadian hockey players whose birthdays before a particular cut-off date allowed them crucial extra months of development that their opponents lacked; computer geniuses born in the mid-1950s whose intellectual maturation overlapped precisely with the burgeoning technological revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s; and émigré lawyers whose circumstances aligned perfectly to grant them unprecedented success in the "revolution of the legal world" in 1970.

In all these cases, luck rather than hard work was the determining factor for success, according to Gladwell. Talent and diligence are still crucial, Gladwell is quick to add; he devotes a whole chapter to "The 10,000 Hour Rule," the notion that 10,000 hours of belabored practice at an early age are a prerequisite for virtually any successful career. But forces of chance (for instance, socioeconomic background and the dedication of one's parents) are the principal determiner of whether a young person can accrue the necessary hours of practice at his particular craft in the first place. In other words, in spite of talent and education, most successful people benefit from "a big head start, an opportunity that they neither deserved nor earned" (30). "Lucky breaks," Gladwell explains, "don't seem like the exception with software billionaires and rock bands and star athletes. They seem like the rule" (56).

In the second half of his book, Gladwell applies his theory not simply to individuals but to races and ethnic groups (featuring such provocative chapter titles as "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" and "Rice Paddies and Math Tests," the latter of which purports to explain why Asians tend to excel in mathematics).

Unfortunately, as his book drags on, one begins to grow weary of his anecdotal evidence and predictable conclusions. In fact, the first chapter is sufficient to ascertain the makeup of the entire book, which unfolds exactly as expected: in one vignette after another, the successes of person after person and group after group are revealed (though not always through cogent reasoning) to be the products of fortune, rather than mere diligence alone.

His predictable conclusion would not be so tiresome were Gladwell debunking a widespread, intractable belief in the merits of talent and hard work alone. But as his book progresses, one naturally asks whether anyone today really believes in unbridled meritocracy-or whether anyone ever has. The American dream has always stressed (and still stresses) hard work, but not even the most naive optimist denies the importance of chance occurrences, lucky breaks, and unpredictable whims of fate, or assumes that perseverance alone can overcome them. Gladwell's thesis addresses a straw man.

Outliers only recognizes what all good biographers, sociologists, journalists, and historians (in fact, all thoughtful people interested in the intersection of life's vicissitudes with psychological and sociological complexity) have always known: the makeup of one's life cannot be reduced to the inner strivings of an isolated, individual self. While Gladwell provides a helpful and sometimes colorful reminder of this truth, his book takes on a falsely didactic tone that assumes groundbreaking insight when he has merely identified a handful of illustrative examples of a truth that most people already know. Talent and diligence alone do not guarantee success.

Despite the unoriginality of Gladwell's Outliers, some Christian reflection on his work is worthwhile. First, Gladwell rightly cautions against a superficial analysis of the everyday events around us. Even the most seemingly straightforward occurrences often mask deeper causes, and to understand and appreciate God's world we should be on guard against simplistic explanations (and therefore any hasty designation of blame or praise), especially where success and failure are concerned.

Second, Gladwell points to the importance of community. For instance, he paints a tragic picture of a frighteningly brilliant genius whose IQ exceeded Einstein's by fifty points, but who led a life devoid of any professional success because he never submitted himself to peer review. Gladwell rightly concludes that even the most talented cannot succeed by themselves; "no one," he explains, "ever makes it alone" (115). From this vivid portrait we realize the importance of interpersonal reinforcement and interconnectedness. Success at any level demands a willingness to assent to scrutiny. Christians understand that God has designed the world of human interactions as an interwoven tapestry in which all the threads are mutually dependent on each other (or, to use Paul's biological metaphor, Christians represent distinct but necessary parts of a single living body).

Third, Gladwell's study points to God's sovereignty. Without God's providence, this book would offer little hope, concluding that success comes, despite the importance of hard work, primarily from the blind forces of chance. But if we interpret Gladwell's description of causation as divine sovereignty, the book's message becomes more comforting. After all, long before Malcolm Gladwell, the Bible understood life's intricacies, the nuances of causation, the importance of even the most seemingly trivial details. The story of Joseph and of Jonah (to name just two examples) unequivocally point to the guiding hand of God on his people through seemingly insignificant details. In fact, perhaps the best biblical summary of Outliers is Proverbs 16:9 (rather than Matthew 25:29): "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps."

In summary, don't read Outliers for tightly woven arguments or a novel theory of success, for it lacks both. But for a diverse and often lively, albeit predictable, survey of individuals and groups that have enjoyed success across various disciplines and professions, O utliers is accessible and entertaining, and may even provide occasion for theological reflection on God's providential hand over human affairs.

Friday, May 1st 2009

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