The Gladwell Formula

jacobs The Gladwell FormulaOutliers: The Story of Success
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown, 309 pages, $27.99

Of all the writers in the world—the number continues to multiply in terror-inducing increments—Malcolm Gladwell may be the only one who doesn’t need the extra credit from God you get for being published in The New Yorker.

His status there as star staffer certainly wins him no extra love from the management-consultant types who stuff his best-selling books into their briefcases before striding purposefully through airports, en route to their next carpeted conference suite. Mr. Gladwell has other, far more relatable gigs: Eponymous Web site maintainer; curiously youthful-seeming Romeo (like public-radio heartthrob Ira Glass, he’s well into his 40s); orator who fills theaters the size of the Colosseum with his plummy-voiced presentations, his hands flitting in front of him like birds as the capacity crowd murmurs its approval.

In a lengthy “Disclosure Statement” posted on gladwell.com, the slightly built, big-haired pop phenomenon mulls whether there’s a conflict inherent in accepting such lucrative speaking engagements and being a journalist.

Ethically, maybe not; aesthetically, it’s another story.

Indeed, the patois of PowerPoint often threatens to disrupt the enjoyment of Mr. Gladwell’s newest treatise, Outliers, which is about how super-achievers like—well, like Malcolm Gladwell!—get where they are. The short answer is, like the old Carnegie Hall joke: practice. About 10,000 hours of it. But back to that in a moment, as he might say.

“Let’s now turn to …” is another favored phrase. And: “I think you can guess where this is headed.” Is he picturing the upturned, adoring faces of his massive audience as he writes? “We know far more than that, don’t we?” Do we? Better bring a sharpened pencil. Outliers is full of lists and charts and quizzes, as if this were Cosmo for the Mensa set or something. The author is also an evident enthusiast of the old public-speaking adage: “First, tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.”

 

IF THIS SORT OF obvious narrative gimmickry doesn’t make you squirm and angle for the illuminated Exit signs, there’s plenty to appreciate about Outliers. Though not its title, which no one seems exactly sure how to pronounce. Is it “out-lee-yer,” which sounds like a lonely ranch hand; or “out-lee-yay,” a particularly flamboyant marcher against Proposition 8, or … ?

“I’m 98 percent sure it’s ‘out-lyer,’” said a super-achieving man I often consult on such matters.

Ah.

More problematically: Even after reading the book, which begins with a definition, I’m still not exactly sure what an outlier is. But there’s a reason, perhaps, for this semantic ambiguity. As Mr. Gladwell uses the term, outlier means “an extraordinary person.” Yet his central premise—in a prescient or maybe just canny shift to the left as the Obama Era dawns—is that extraordinary people are tender little buds who owe at least some portion of their specialness to the fertile but ordinary muck of social and cultural circumstances. “The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents,” he writes in what comes closest to a capsule statement (get out your highlighters). “It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.”

If you want to be a champion Canadian hockey player, for example (Mr. Gladwell’s strength is examples), it will help immensely if you came into the world in January, February or March. To be an American utilities tycoon, it is pretty much essential to have been arrived between 1831 and 1840. And 1930 was a great vintage for New York Jewish lawyers.

This may sound like numerology, but stick with him; Outliers ably explains the complementary (and potentially crushing) effect of small generational ebbs and flows on one’s personal talent. In order to reach the apex of accomplishment, it turns out, everything has to be Just So.

And if you do decide to pursue a particular field, you’d better commit; there’s nothing sadder than a outlier dilettante, growing soft surfing the Web and dropping pretzel crumbs into the sofa cracks. According to Mr. Gladwell’s research, it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years, of dedicated practice to become an expert on anything. Asian people tend to have a good work ethic, he notes—why? Let’s go back, way back, to 15th-century China, in a probably unconscious echo of that archetypal old-New Yorker piece about wheat. “Think for a moment, about what the life of a rice farmer in the Pearl River Delta must’ve been like,” the author breathes in full podium mode, going on to exalt the backbreaking toil: “It was meaningful.” For a moment, you kind of want a rice farmer to time-travel to 2008 and clobber him over the head with a stone chisel.

But just for a moment. Whether it’s by his glittering reputation or simple persuasion, Mr. Gladwell has great gets: Microsoft’s Bill Gates, fortunate enough to have come of age in the Desk Set era of computers; “smartest man in America” Chris Langan, tragically stymied by his miserable upbringing; power agent Mort Janklow; education professor Diane Ravitch—all make seamless cameos in service of the central argument. They give excellent and entertaining interviews. A chapter on the ethnic theory of plane safety is completely riveting, as writings on plane safety tend to be.

The author also must be credited with resisting making the book about the author—at least until the very end.

 

AND YET ONE SOMETIMES gets the nagging feeling that the secret to Malcolm Gladwell’s own success is codifying, proving and “scientificating” things that we already know from human experience, novels and simple common sense. After describing an experiment that proved Southern men are more hot-tempered by measuring the cortisols in their saliva, he blandly proclaims that “cultural legacies are powerful forces.” For this, we needed a spit study? I could’ve just read Gone with the Wind!

“Lucky breaks seem like the rule,” intones the Gladwell genius, early on. And: “No one ever makes it alone.” These are the kind of pronouncements that seem more suited to an acrylic motivational plaque than the pages of The New Yorker.

Alexandra Jacobs is editor at large at The Observer. She can be reached at ajacobs@observer.com.