Friday, January 09, 2009

Story of success that isn't

I can’t remember reading a more underwhelming book recently. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, sets out to prove that success is not the outcome of one’s talent or intelligence, but circumstance and luck. Well, one can debate the existence of that rara avis—the self-made man, but surely, to write a book that explicitly discounts its possibility is outlandish, to say the least.

Gladwell begins by citing the example of Canadian hockey champs, most of who, he discovers, are born in January, February and March. And how does he account for this? The Canadian system of hockey recruitment has a cutoff date of January 1, as a result of which little kids born in the first few months have a natural advantage over those born in autumn. This gets compounded as the kids grow and are exposed to the best coaching. This is the first of many Gladwellian anecdotes that the writer will wish his gullible reader to endorse.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Sun Microsystems’ Bill Joy both achieved software superstardom because, in Gladwell’s view, they happened to be born to affluent parents at a time when computers were just about taking over the American academic landscape. Well yes, but Gates and Joy’s fate was shared by hundreds of thousands of other white Americans. Surely the duo must have had something in them to break free of the clutter of mediocrity.

There’s more. Gladwell credits the success of the Beatles to 10,000 hours of intensive training in their younger days. (Irritatingly, he calls it his generic 10,000-hour rule.) I doubt that Kavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student whose How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was plagiarized from several sources, could become a half-decent writer if she struggled with the pen for 10,000 long hours. She just does not have what it takes to be a writer, and no amount of hard work is going to change her tendency to lift.

The second part of Outliers explores how cultural affiliations propel or hinder success. The examples Gladwell cites are so vague they can only be compared to the tendency of economists/business journalists to pontificate in the dark. He attributes the superior mathematical skills of Asians to, hold your breath, rice cultivation. Apparently (please bear with Gladwell—I did), growing rice entails such a complex array of mental permutations that mathematical ability has entered into the genome of the Asian races. Phew! If only Gladwell had met the hundreds of Indians I know who dread the ‘M’ word.

After poring over this book three times over in an attempt to glean any saving graces in Gladwell’s thesis, I came to the sad conclusion—none. He is too drawn to the big picture and too involved in coining fancy theories to devote attention to the individual behind the story. Consider his analysis of Korea’s frequent plane crashes in the 1990s. Gladwell credits this to a culture of deference. Co-pilots, rather than chide their seniors, preferred having the planes crash, in Gladwell’s view. He even quotes cockpit conversations to bolster his claim. Another dragging piece of absurd theorizing that extrapolates the individuals’ traits to their cultures.

For someone in my line, doomed to spending a third of his life with wretched look-how-smart-I-am types, Gladwell’s writing is frequently smug, often mocking, and always grating. Other reviews of Outliers have wrongly drawn attention to the “uplifting” example of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme), a chain of publicly-funded schools in the US, which have generated heartening results with Afro-American and Hispanic children from single-parent households. While the example is inspiring, its inclusion in Outliers defies logic. This is hardly the case of luck outshining talent; rather a well-devised strategy to attack illiteracy and deprivation in a target population.

Gladwell’s The Tipping Point was a similar exercise in grand theorizing—using popular science to explain such meaningless events as the soaring popularity of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s. In spite of global events this year, the love of devising smart-alecky models to ascertain the future continues unabated among the left-liberal set. Gladwell is, famously, its worst manifestation.

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This review appeared in Business Standard.

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