One of my least attractive features as I grow older, I am sure, is that I have an increasingly jaundiced view of intellectual and academic celebrity in American life. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers did little to cure me of this vice. While on vacation in Burlington Vermont, I picked up Outliers in a bookstore and read the first 10 or 20 pages. I wasn’t exactly hooked, but I had heard of Gladwell’s work, had read the requisite New Yorker articles, and thought I’d give it a try. I’ve been interested for a while in how and why creative ideas happen, why some great ideas evolve and flourish and have staying power while other ideas that seem important at the moment later look ridiculous, or even worse still really look good many years later and yet never seem to have really taken hold and made a difference. (All of my ideas fall in to one of these latter two categories). Admittedly there was some degree of autobiographical intention here since as an administrator I’ve been concerned with how to foster good ideas and innovation in my school, but even more importantly, how to get some of those good ideas to take hold and make a difference for the long haul. The only really good idea is the idea that can be implemented.
Gladwell’s book isn’t exactly about that, but it’s in the general territory. He’s examining how and why some people achieve extraordinary success in life while some others, who appear equally talented, do not achieve the same level of unusual accomplishment. Gladwell calls the extraordinarily successful–the Steve Jobs, the Michael Jordans, the Bill Gates, the Warren Buffetts–outliers. According to Gladwell’s website, outliers are “men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”
It is probably not a great sign that, given this definition, Gladwell’s last chapter is focused on…Gladwell. Gladwell is certainly a success, but is he so accomplished, so extraordinary, and so outside my ordinary experience that I find him puzzling? Alas, no. And the suggestion that he might be suggests a level of venality that is startling even for writers. Indeed, what is striking about Outliers is its utter ordinariness. In saying this I don’t mean to suggest that it is dreadfully bad; it simply doesn’t doesn’t live up to the Entertainment Weekly blurb which describes it as “Explosively entertaining….riveting science, self-help, and entertainment, all in one book.” (Why one might think this is a recommendation is another story).
There is one basic idea in this book. Americans believe extraordinarily successful people are successful because they are extraordinary individuals, gifted beyond measure. In fact, their extraordinary success depends upon a combination of hard work and a series of fortuitous events including their family heritage, the particular period into which they were born, their geographical location, teachers they had in college, mentors they met along the way.
One must pause for several seconds to let this sink in. And not much longer. Once it has sunk in one must also pause and ask how it is that Gladwell got paid so handsomely for stating an idea that he hardly originated, and he did not even bother to state it with a prose that sparks and leaps from the page. This, finally, was the disappointment of the book. Not that what he said was not worth saying; its just that this idea alone and the rather ordinary prose that Gladwell uses to pursue is not worth the 285 pages he decided to expend on the effort. There are enough good ideas and enough good examples of those ideas in the book to justify a lengthy New Yorker article, which, as one pauses to think about it, is where much of this book actually originated.
In turning an article’s worth of ideas and insights in to a nearly 300 page book, Gladwell exemplifies at a distance what too often happens in the pursuit of intellectual insight within academe, and so perhaps it is just a feature of American intellectual life generally: the average dissertation is one good idea bloated to a size that seems to justify a reasonably good job at a college or university. Even worse, its also characteristic of too many intellectual and academic celebrities who seem to churn out the same idea under different cover art, under the grand name of producing knowledge; one wonders a little too quickly whether it isn’t partially about reproducing themselves. (Remember, I began this blog post with an understanding that I am becoming old, jaundiced and cranky)
One begins to wonder, just a bit, whether or not a game is afoot, and whether something about a book that purports to be an act of intelligence but gets its most ravishing blurb from Entertainment Weekly isn’t maybe just a little bit akin to that other great American type, the carny salesman, the PT Barnums, Melville’s confidence man, the Wizard of Oz. There’s not much there there, but I paid my 16.99 and kept reading to the end, like the sucker throwing good money after bad.
A word of advice, the New Yorker articles are more finely wrought, and shorter. And they are all online. You can get all the Gladwell you need for free. Then if you feel guilty go buy the book and put it on your shelf. It will make a good conversation starter at cocktail parties, conversations you will be able to command because you read the website.