Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell on Success

Over the Christmas break, I had the chance to read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

In a nutshell, Gladwell argues that extreme individual success – the success of people who are “outliers” in terms of performance and outcomes – is not due to levels of IQ or what specifically they are educated in, but is primarily due to three things:

  1. the circumstances of when and where we were born and the opportunities that that presents to us,
  2. the social culture and norms we inherit from our society and family
  3. the amount of time we invest in developing a skill or talent

At the time of writing, Gladwell’s Outliers is sitting at #8 on Amazon.com’s sales rankings – and is therefore clearly a tremendous popular success. And deservedly so. Gladwell’s book is on success – an important and interesting topic. It is well written and engaging. Gladwell has become an expert in selecting anecdotes and selective pieces of social science research and assembling it into an engaging story.

Gladwell’s argument in the book, in brief, is as follows.

The Matthew Effect

Gladwell argues that in a group of people in a given school year, there is a distribution of birthdates across that year. Therefore, in relation to the intake for selection for school sports in their early school years, some people will be born earlier than others, and therefore have had the opportunity to develop further physically and mentally in comparison with others – up to almost 12 months of difference in some cases. When initially selecting people for junior sporting teams, people born earlier will have a slight advantage over others due to their corresponding further physical and mental development, and will therefore be more likely to make the cut for a team.

However, once they are in the team, they receive the benefit of increased coaching, the challenge of playing with the better players, more hours of practice and training, and support and encouragement from their social networks and peers. This initially small difference in ability due to being borm earlier becomes magnified over years of playing in high school sports teams and entering elite training programs, resulting in significant differences in skill and ability in comparison to people who did not have those opportunities.

The initial selection, therefore, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which Gladwell calls the “Matthew Effect” citing Matthew 25:29 that “for unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Gladwell illustrates his point starkly by providing tables of the birthdates of Canadian Ice Hockey players in given teams noting that the birthdates of team members are largely clustered around the earliest date allowed for the intake of selection for that cohort of players – that is, the date that gives them the maximum initial advantage in terms of physical and mental maturity and development in their first school sports intake year. Gladwell argues that the phenomenon is univeral and international in sport, citing further examples from soccer (“football” in the UK).

The 10,000 Hour Rule

In his second chapter, Gladwell develops an argument based on contemporary research showing that significant success is typically preceded by years of dedicated practice, a principle summarised in the notion that around 10,000 hours of training and practice typically precedes major, elite success. Gladwell develops this theme by reviewing the development of Bill Joy and Bill Gates in computing and the Beatles in music. The Beatles, for example, spent much time in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962, playing 5 or more hours per night, and before they had their first burst of success they had played live an estimated 1200 times, playing 5 to 8 hours each time.

In this chapter, Gladwell also develops a second theme. In articulating his case studies of the success of Bill Joy or Bill Gates or the Beatles to demonstrate that these “outliers” of success had put in the requisite hours of practice, Gladwell argued that these opportunities for practice only came about due to special circumstances. Bill Gates and Bill Joy, for example, gained access to computing facilities years ahead of their peers, due to circumstances such as when and where they were born and specific groups and institutions making computing available to them years ahead of others in their field.

Gladwell takes this line of thought further, and suggests that we should expect to see the greatest outliers (in terms of financial success) at times of significant world change, such as the industrial revolution or the advent of the internet. These times provide significant opportunities, and people who are well placed by circumstance to develop the requisite skills and know-how can ride the wave of change to reap the benefits.

The Trouble with Geniuses

Gladwell presents arguments from social science recapping that IQ is not in itself a strong predictor of success in life, but socialisation is. In particular, well off families tend to invest in their children outside of school by driving them around to different activities (sports, music, theatre) leading to more hours of practice but also to coach them in how to ask for and expect what they want and need, developing a sense of what Gladwell calls “entitlement.”

Legacy

In the second half of the book, Gladwell turns his focus to culture, arguing that “cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives.” Gladwell considers culture in relation to family feuds and murder in the backwoods of Kentucky, human factors in relation to airplane crashes, and diffferent forms of agriculture (rice vs wheat) in relation to the cultures they entail and support and the differing legacies this culture leaves to the descendants of these farmers.

Critical Assessment

Gladwell is a master story teller. For those of us interested in writing or public speaking, Gladwell’s writing provides a case study of how to tell persuasive and engaging stories, drawing in and engaging an audience. Numerous insights and lessons can be drawn from how Gladwell constructs his stories, from the setup and context to how he orchestrates the intellectual “plot” twists and turns.

Gladwell also provides a window into selected works from a fascinating world of research in social science. Gladwell provides sufficient detail in his chapter notes so that the interested reader can follow up and pursue the specific pieces of research cited explicitly by Gladwell, although the interested reader will have to follow their own nose to read more widely to gain a wider and more informed perspective of the various strands of discussion around these areas in social science.

But from a critical point of view, there are a few points that need to be made.

Problems with Gladwell’s arguments and methodology

The single biggest question mark in Outliers is in relation to what might be considered causes of success as opposed to corrolaries of success. Has Gladwell identified the causal factors underlying success, or is he discussing behaviours typically correlated with succesful individuals or groups?

For example, the Beatles may have done 10,000 hours practice in Hamburg prior to becoming an international phenomenon, and this opportunity may have come about due to a chance occurence of a Liverpool band agent being in London at the precise time that someone from Hamburg was looking for British bands to go on tour to Hamburg. But the opportunity available to the Beatles was also made available to a number of other Liverpool bands. What was it about the Beatles that made them stand out, and set them in particular on the pathway to success? Similarly, Bill Gates and Bill Joy may have had special early opportunities to access computing facilities and develop computing skills, but so did other individuals. What qualities or characteristics made these specific individuals successful and not others?

Gladwell does not really address these questions. The thrust of Gladwell’s argument seems to be that around 10,000 hours of practice is a necessary condition for outliers to achieve elite success. Without such practice, the individuals concerned will not have developed and refined their skills to a sufficient degree to achieve and maintain elite success.

But 10,000 hours of practice is not a sufficient condition for success: practicing a skill or talent or profession diligently for 10,000 hours is no guarantee for success even for an outlier born into the right circumstances and opportunities and being socialised into an appropriate and empowering family and societal culture. For individuals pursuing success – who wish to become “outliers” themselves – then they need to know and apply the sufficient conditions for success – to be able to put into action the relevant causes to guarantee the desired effect. Gladwell does not make these sufficient conditions clear.

These case studies and anecdotes are also open to question as we dive into the specifics of each case. Bill Gates, for example, may have received 10,000 hours of practice in computer programming at a time when this facility was not widely available. This gave Gates experience in the computing industry and an edge over others in understanding the industry. However, Bill Gates is not renowned for having become the world’s greatest computer programmer. He is renowned for becoming the world’s richest man, by creating one of the world’s largest software companies initially by making a business deal with IBM to supply them with an operating system for the personal computer and then establishing an effective monopoly around the provision of the operating system and leveraging that monopoly for continuing gain.

The key skill underlying Gates’ initial success was the business acumen to enter discussions with, negotiate, and conclude an advantageous IT deal with the world’s then largest IT giant. The question therefore is what gave Gates these specific business skills, and the confidence to drop out of college and start up and run an effective software company. The argument that Gladwell needs to make is that Gates had the opportunity to develop business skills such as sales and contract negotiation, and be in a position to apply these skills with one of the worlds largest companies. The fact that Gates may have had 10,000 hours of practice in computer programming does not seem to be the key point, the question is where when and how he developed his business acumen, coupled with his insight into the IT industry of the time.

Gladwell also argues that individuals such as Bill Gates and the Beatles were born into a time where there were specific opportunities for them. The world was changing, and they arrived at just such a juncture and in just the right circumstances to develop the appropriate skills and take advantage of the opportunities presenting themselves. But isn’t this putting the cart before the horse?

The modern world is always changing. There is always something new. If someone followed their interests in science, they would be in a position and with relevant skills to encounter opportunities around areas such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnologies, and environmental technologies. If they went into computing or technology, there would be developments around the internet and broadband and a whole range of unprecedented opportunities. If someone went into music, there have been ongoing developments and movements over the last 60 years and before. There is always an opportunity.

One can readily accept the point that the most wealthy American entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunities of their times. But if they were born in to other times or had different interests, would they have seen and taken advantage of other opportunities? From a methodological point of view it is not enough to point to a successful individual or group and say ‘the times suited this person and they took advantage of the opportunity.’ Rather, the more interesting question is whether a successful person develops a capability to follow their interests, develop their skills, and to find or create opportunities and position themselves to take advantage of them.

For example, Steve Jobs of Apple stated in an interview that his business strategy with Apple was to wait for the next big opportunity – and then take advantage of it. Jobs’ success might be explained by Gladwell post hoc in terms of Jobs having developed thousands of hours experience in the IT and multimedia industry and then opportunities such as Pixar and the confluence of technologies and copyright in the iPod and iTunes came along. But just as strongly Jobs was explicitly seeking out opportunities for exercising his skills and interests in relation to new opportunities and using these opportunities as a vehicle for taking his company to the next level of success. It’s not enough to write off Jobs’ success fatalistically to him happening to be in the right place in the right time with the right skills: by contrast Jobs was actively seeking out and evaluating and developing emerging opportunities and deliberately using them as a springboard to success.

The wider point is that there are always such opportunities, and successful entrepreneurs find them. One of the most successful public speeches of all time, Acres of Diamonds, essentially makes the point that entrepreneurial opportunities are everywhere at all times, and to find them you only have to look around your own world and see what needs improvement. Part of the entreprenuerial success makeup is a predisposition or capacity to identify and take advantage of opportunities.

Lack of a strong conclusion or summary

Although Gladwell develops his theme of what is involved for the success over successive chapters in the two halves of his book, he does not bring his thoughts together in a powerful conclusion chapter at the end reviewing the key points, spelling out for us his thoughts on what his ideas about “outliers” mean, highlighting what the implications are for us in practice, and showing us how we can apply his ideas. Instead, the book develops a different aspect chapter by chapter, and then suddenly stops. It is up to the reader to go back and synthesise and summarise and apply the insights for themselves.

It comes across (to me anyway) as a lame and anticlimactic ending, and I’m surprised his editors let him get away without a strong conclusions chapter.

Lack of practical guidance

Gladwell does not provide much in the way of practical guidance regarding how any of his insights can be applied for benefit in our lives. For this, we are still better off turning directly to biographies and autobiographies of successful people, reading more rigorous studies of success factors in our chosen fields, and drawing critically from the leading self-help books which are often full of directly applicable relevant insights.

Rhetorical argument

I had previously posted to this blog a review of Gladwell’s earlier book, The Tipping Point (currently still sitting at #34 in Amazon.com’s sales ranking). In that review I argued that Gladwell’s writing is best understood as rhetoric in the classical Greek sense critiqued by Plato’s Socrates in the Gorgias and Phadrus – as eliciting persuasion without grounding it in the necessary substance and display of all the relevant facts. That is, I argued that Gladwell sought to persuade as much through a style of argument that selectively draws from ‘anecdotes’ from the social science literature to persuade the listener of the speaker’s point of view, without grounding the reader sufficiently deeply in the relevant literature to allow the reader to make a realistic assessment of the merits of the argument. Gladwell was not really a populariser of existing work in social science, at least in the sense that the term “populariser” is normally understood, as he did not provide anything like a well rounded review of the various strands of existing research that would allow the reader to understand a field of research, make their own judgements, and use that understanding to illuminate their own experience of the world. Similarly, Gladwell did not develop an argument from scratch, citing statistics and facts in a coherent integrated argument to develop a case for a particular point of view. What Gladwell did instead in Tipping Point was to draw selectively from a range of studies in such a way as to lend credence to a commonsense and widely acepted notion of a ‘tipping point’ that was already prevalent in frameworks such as nonlinear dynamics and complexity theory, but rebranded in such a way to be ‘his’ theory of tipping points.

The same criticisms can be made in relation to Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell seeks to persuade through stories based on carefully selected anecdotes or research reports. He shows us what he wants to, in a way designed to entertain and engage us and to garner assent. He does not immerse us in the details of the case studies or the discussions in the social science literature to an extent that would enable us to form our own objective judgements. We are shown what Gladwell wants us to see, in the way he wants us to see it. Gladwell’s work is classical persuasive rhetoric, not a well developed argument in social science.

Conclusions

Outliers is, like Gladwell’s other books, highly rhetorical in nature.

However, at the end of the day, Outliers puts forward some provocative and interesting ideas, supported by selectively choosing threads of research from social science that support Gladwell’s views.

It’s greatest weakness is the lack of a strong conclusion or advice on how to apply the insights to improve our own success in life.

It’s great strength is the intellectual entertainment and provocation it brings to world.

It’s definitely worth a read.

One Response to Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell on Success
  1. Susan Kuhn Frost
    March 23, 2009 | 4:05 AM

    Gladwell IS a story teller not a social scientist and his attention is selective (as is anyone's who is making a point). That is the writer's prerogative. I think this book is best read as a challenge to a prevailing bias that is so strong that we barely stop to consider that it might be exaggerated or even lead us to wrong conclusions.

    To take such a book and analyze it as rhetoric v. exhaustive social science is to miss not only its intellectual ambitions (largely achieved) but also its carefully crafted argument.

    I also recommend reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which decimates (at least) the bright-line distinction between science and rhetoric.

    I found the book stimulating of new ideas for practical implementation in my work on entrepreneurship education. I suspect others will find the same for their fields.

Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell on Success

Over the Christmas break, I had the chance to read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

In a nutshell, Gladwell argues that extreme individual success – the success of people who are “outliers” in terms of performance and outcomes – is not due to levels of IQ or what specifically they are educated in, but is primarily due to three things:

  1. the circumstances of when and where we were born and the opportunities that that presents to us,
  2. the social culture and norms we inherit from our society and family
  3. the amount of time we invest in developing a skill or talent

At the time of writing, Gladwell’s Outliers is sitting at #8 on Amazon.com’s sales rankings – and is therefore clearly a tremendous popular success. And deservedly so. Gladwell’s book is on success – an important and interesting topic. It is well written and engaging. Gladwell has become an expert in selecting anecdotes and selective pieces of social science research and assembling it into an engaging story.

Gladwell’s argument in the book, in brief, is as follows.

The Matthew Effect

Gladwell argues that in a group of people in a given school year, there is a distribution of birthdates across that year. Therefore, in relation to the intake for selection for school sports in their early school years, some people will be born earlier than others, and therefore have had the opportunity to develop further physically and mentally in comparison with others – up to almost 12 months of difference in some cases. When initially selecting people for junior sporting teams, people born earlier will have a slight advantage over others due to their corresponding further physical and mental development, and will therefore be more likely to make the cut for a team.

However, once they are in the team, they receive the benefit of increased coaching, the challenge of playing with the better players, more hours of practice and training, and support and encouragement from their social networks and peers. This initially small difference in ability due to being borm earlier becomes magnified over years of playing in high school sports teams and entering elite training programs, resulting in significant differences in skill and ability in comparison to people who did not have those opportunities.

The initial selection, therefore, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which Gladwell calls the “Matthew Effect” citing Matthew 25:29 that “for unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Gladwell illustrates his point starkly by providing tables of the birthdates of Canadian Ice Hockey players in given teams noting that the birthdates of team members are largely clustered around the earliest date allowed for the intake of selection for that cohort of players – that is, the date that gives them the maximum initial advantage in terms of physical and mental maturity and development in their first school sports intake year. Gladwell argues that the phenomenon is univeral and international in sport, citing further examples from soccer (“football” in the UK).

The 10,000 Hour Rule

In his second chapter, Gladwell develops an argument based on contemporary research showing that significant success is typically preceded by years of dedicated practice, a principle summarised in the notion that around 10,000 hours of training and practice typically precedes major, elite success. Gladwell develops this theme by reviewing the development of Bill Joy and Bill Gates in computing and the Beatles in music. The Beatles, for example, spent much time in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962, playing 5 or more hours per night, and before they had their first burst of success they had played live an estimated 1200 times, playing 5 to 8 hours each time.

In this chapter, Gladwell also develops a second theme. In articulating his case studies of the success of Bill Joy or Bill Gates or the Beatles to demonstrate that these “outliers” of success had put in the requisite hours of practice, Gladwell argued that these opportunities for practice only came about due to special circumstances. Bill Gates and Bill Joy, for example, gained access to computing facilities years ahead of their peers, due to circumstances such as when and where they were born and specific groups and institutions making computing available to them years ahead of others in their field.

Gladwell takes this line of thought further, and suggests that we should expect to see the greatest outliers (in terms of financial success) at times of significant world change, such as the industrial revolution or the advent of the internet. These times provide significant opportunities, and people who are well placed by circumstance to develop the requisite skills and know-how can ride the wave of change to reap the benefits.

The Trouble with Geniuses

Gladwell presents arguments from social science recapping that IQ is not in itself a strong predictor of success in life, but socialisation is. In particular, well off families tend to invest in their children outside of school by driving them around to different activities (sports, music, theatre) leading to more hours of practice but also to coach them in how to ask for and expect what they want and need, developing a sense of what Gladwell calls “entitlement.”

Legacy

In the second half of the book, Gladwell turns his focus to culture, arguing that “cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives.” Gladwell considers culture in relation to family feuds and murder in the backwoods of Kentucky, human factors in relation to airplane crashes, and diffferent forms of agriculture (rice vs wheat) in relation to the cultures they entail and support and the differing legacies this culture leaves to the descendants of these farmers.

Critical Assessment

Gladwell is a master story teller. For those of us interested in writing or public speaking, Gladwell’s writing provides a case study of how to tell persuasive and engaging stories, drawing in and engaging an audience. Numerous insights and lessons can be drawn from how Gladwell constructs his stories, from the setup and context to how he orchestrates the intellectual “plot” twists and turns.

Gladwell also provides a window into selected works from a fascinating world of research in social science. Gladwell provides sufficient detail in his chapter notes so that the interested reader can follow up and pursue the specific pieces of research cited explicitly by Gladwell, although the interested reader will have to follow their own nose to read more widely to gain a wider and more informed perspective of the various strands of discussion around these areas in social science.

But from a critical point of view, there are a few points that need to be made.

Problems with Gladwell’s arguments and methodology

The single biggest question mark in Outliers is in relation to what might be considered causes of success as opposed to corrolaries of success. Has Gladwell identified the causal factors underlying success, or is he discussing behaviours typically correlated with succesful individuals or groups?

For example, the Beatles may have done 10,000 hours practice in Hamburg prior to becoming an international phenomenon, and this opportunity may have come about due to a chance occurence of a Liverpool band agent being in London at the precise time that someone from Hamburg was looking for British bands to go on tour to Hamburg. But the opportunity available to the Beatles was also made available to a number of other Liverpool bands. What was it about the Beatles that made them stand out, and set them in particular on the pathway to success? Similarly, Bill Gates and Bill Joy may have had special early opportunities to access computing facilities and develop computing skills, but so did other individuals. What qualities or characteristics made these specific individuals successful and not others?

Gladwell does not really address these questions. The thrust of Gladwell’s argument seems to be that around 10,000 hours of practice is a necessary condition for outliers to achieve elite success. Without such practice, the individuals concerned will not have developed and refined their skills to a sufficient degree to achieve and maintain elite success.

But 10,000 hours of practice is not a sufficient condition for success: practicing a skill or talent or profession diligently for 10,000 hours is no guarantee for success even for an outlier born into the right circumstances and opportunities and being socialised into an appropriate and empowering family and societal culture. For individuals pursuing success – who wish to become “outliers” themselves – then they need to know and apply the sufficient conditions for success – to be able to put into action the relevant causes to guarantee the desired effect. Gladwell does not make these sufficient conditions clear.

These case studies and anecdotes are also open to question as we dive into the specifics of each case. Bill Gates, for example, may have received 10,000 hours of practice in computer programming at a time when this facility was not widely available. This gave Gates experience in the computing industry and an edge over others in understanding the industry. However, Bill Gates is not renowned for having become the world’s greatest computer programmer. He is renowned for becoming the world’s richest man, by creating one of the world’s largest software companies initially by making a business deal with IBM to supply them with an operating system for the personal computer and then establishing an effective monopoly around the provision of the operating system and leveraging that monopoly for continuing gain.

The key skill underlying Gates’ initial success was the business acumen to enter discussions with, negotiate, and conclude an advantageous IT deal with the world’s then largest IT giant. The question therefore is what gave Gates these specific business skills, and the confidence to drop out of college and start up and run an effective software company. The argument that Gladwell needs to make is that Gates had the opportunity to develop business skills such as sales and contract negotiation, and be in a position to apply these skills with one of the worlds largest companies. The fact that Gates may have had 10,000 hours of practice in computer programming does not seem to be the key point, the question is where when and how he developed his business acumen, coupled with his insight into the IT industry of the time.

Gladwell also argues that individuals such as Bill Gates and the Beatles were born into a time where there were specific opportunities for them. The world was changing, and they arrived at just such a juncture and in just the right circumstances to develop the appropriate skills and take advantage of the opportunities presenting themselves. But isn’t this putting the cart before the horse?

The modern world is always changing. There is always something new. If someone followed their interests in science, they would be in a position and with relevant skills to encounter opportunities around areas such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnologies, and environmental technologies. If they went into computing or technology, there would be developments around the internet and broadband and a whole range of unprecedented opportunities. If someone went into music, there have been ongoing developments and movements over the last 60 years and before. There is always an opportunity.

One can readily accept the point that the most wealthy American entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunities of their times. But if they were born in to other times or had different interests, would they have seen and taken advantage of other opportunities? From a methodological point of view it is not enough to point to a successful individual or group and say ‘the times suited this person and they took advantage of the opportunity.’ Rather, the more interesting question is whether a successful person develops a capability to follow their interests, develop their skills, and to find or create opportunities and position themselves to take advantage of them.

For example, Steve Jobs of Apple stated in an interview that his business strategy with Apple was to wait for the next big opportunity – and then take advantage of it. Jobs’ success might be explained by Gladwell post hoc in terms of Jobs having developed thousands of hours experience in the IT and multimedia industry and then opportunities such as Pixar and the confluence of technologies and copyright in the iPod and iTunes came along. But just as strongly Jobs was explicitly seeking out opportunities for exercising his skills and interests in relation to new opportunities and using these opportunities as a vehicle for taking his company to the next level of success. It’s not enough to write off Jobs’ success fatalistically to him happening to be in the right place in the right time with the right skills: by contrast Jobs was actively seeking out and evaluating and developing emerging opportunities and deliberately using them as a springboard to success.

The wider point is that there are always such opportunities, and successful entrepreneurs find them. One of the most successful public speeches of all time, Acres of Diamonds, essentially makes the point that entrepreneurial opportunities are everywhere at all times, and to find them you only have to look around your own world and see what needs improvement. Part of the entreprenuerial success makeup is a predisposition or capacity to identify and take advantage of opportunities.

Lack of a strong conclusion or summary

Although Gladwell develops his theme of what is involved for the success over successive chapters in the two halves of his book, he does not bring his thoughts together in a powerful conclusion chapter at the end reviewing the key points, spelling out for us his thoughts on what his ideas about “outliers” mean, highlighting what the implications are for us in practice, and showing us how we can apply his ideas. Instead, the book develops a different aspect chapter by chapter, and then suddenly stops. It is up to the reader to go back and synthesise and summarise and apply the insights for themselves.

It comes across (to me anyway) as a lame and anticlimactic ending, and I’m surprised his editors let him get away without a strong conclusions chapter.

Lack of practical guidance

Gladwell does not provide much in the way of practical guidance regarding how any of his insights can be applied for benefit in our lives. For this, we are still better off turning directly to biographies and autobiographies of successful people, reading more rigorous studies of success factors in our chosen fields, and drawing critically from the leading self-help books which are often full of directly applicable relevant insights.

Rhetorical argument

I had previously posted to this blog a review of Gladwell’s earlier book, The Tipping Point (currently still sitting at #34 in Amazon.com’s sales ranking). In that review I argued that Gladwell’s writing is best understood as rhetoric in the classical Greek sense critiqued by Plato’s Socrates in the Gorgias and Phadrus – as eliciting persuasion without grounding it in the necessary substance and display of all the relevant facts. That is, I argued that Gladwell sought to persuade as much through a style of argument that selectively draws from ‘anecdotes’ from the social science literature to persuade the listener of the speaker’s point of view, without grounding the reader sufficiently deeply in the relevant literature to allow the reader to make a realistic assessment of the merits of the argument. Gladwell was not really a populariser of existing work in social science, at least in the sense that the term “populariser” is normally understood, as he did not provide anything like a well rounded review of the various strands of existing research that would allow the reader to understand a field of research, make their own judgements, and use that understanding to illuminate their own experience of the world. Similarly, Gladwell did not develop an argument from scratch, citing statistics and facts in a coherent integrated argument to develop a case for a particular point of view. What Gladwell did instead in Tipping Point was to draw selectively from a range of studies in such a way as to lend credence to a commonsense and widely acepted notion of a ‘tipping point’ that was already prevalent in frameworks such as nonlinear dynamics and complexity theory, but rebranded in such a way to be ‘his’ theory of tipping points.

The same criticisms can be made in relation to Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell seeks to persuade through stories based on carefully selected anecdotes or research reports. He shows us what he wants to, in a way designed to entertain and engage us and to garner assent. He does not immerse us in the details of the case studies or the discussions in the social science literature to an extent that would enable us to form our own objective judgements. We are shown what Gladwell wants us to see, in the way he wants us to see it. Gladwell’s work is classical persuasive rhetoric, not a well developed argument in social science.

Conclusions

Outliers is, like Gladwell’s other books, highly rhetorical in nature.

However, at the end of the day, Outliers puts forward some provocative and interesting ideas, supported by selectively choosing threads of research from social science that support Gladwell’s views.

It’s greatest weakness is the lack of a strong conclusion or advice on how to apply the insights to improve our own success in life.

It’s great strength is the intellectual entertainment and provocation it brings to world.

It’s definitely worth a read.

One Response to Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell on Success
  1. Susan Kuhn Frost
    March 23, 2009 | 4:05 AM

    Gladwell IS a story teller not a social scientist and his attention is selective (as is anyone's who is making a point). That is the writer's prerogative. I think this book is best read as a challenge to a prevailing bias that is so strong that we barely stop to consider that it might be exaggerated or even lead us to wrong conclusions.

    To take such a book and analyze it as rhetoric v. exhaustive social science is to miss not only its intellectual ambitions (largely achieved) but also its carefully crafted argument.

    I also recommend reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which decimates (at least) the bright-line distinction between science and rhetoric.

    I found the book stimulating of new ideas for practical implementation in my work on entrepreneurship education. I suspect others will find the same for their fields.