Blog Post

Why I Heart Malcolm Gladwell

If I had a student write a book review based on the first quarter of abook, I would get all scowly and scoldy and pedagogical and decry thepractice.  Yes.  One quarter way through Malcolm Gladwell's newbestseller Outliers:  The Story of Success, I am going to issue alittle encomium.  But that, after all, is the beauty of blogging.  Yousay what is on your mind now.  And then later you can recant,backtrack, or even go back in and edit.  Time as the blogger's eternalpresent.  So here goes.  Why I heart Malcolm Gladwell.  And, indeed, Ido . . .


It's not because of the brilliance of his theory.  The post immediately preceding mine, by Ryan Platt, is on Ranciere.  Now that, to my intellectual mind, is a brilliant theorist.   But one point of Gladwell's book is that we overrate brilliance.  He has a fascinating chart of the undergraduate schools of the last few dozen Nobel Prize winners.  You probably (like me) guessed they all went to Harvard and Yale, braniacs from the get-go.  Not.  A range of schools, all good ones, and all, in Gladwell's terms, good enough.  There is a threshold of intelligence necessary for what our middle-class ways determine to be success.  But, beyond that, intelligence needs at least two other things:  opportunity (lots of opportunities) and practice (10,000 hours of hard work).


Now, if you have read my postings on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, you know I'm a firm believer in the science of evolution and a great skeptic about how those paradigms are applied to the lived lives of contemporary humans in society.  So you won't be surprised that I admire the situatedness of Gladwell's narration of the "story of success."  Guess what?  You gotta be in the right place at the right time, and once there you have to work and work and work and work, and then, maybe, all that stunning genetic inheritance will help you shine.  But it's not enough.  It's not the only thing.  It's not the most important thing.


Gladwell is a great story teller.  He often cherry picks the very best scientific studies, extrapolates a lucid idea from them, and then retells the experiment in lively, unforgettable narrative terms that enliven not only the social science but the thinking mind of the reader.  As with Ranciere, I sometimes find myself in disagreement, but I am always intrigued.   I like the way Gladwell's humor, his remarkable ability to backtrack and enrich and complicate an argument without being pedantic (this is not easy to do), and his perfect eye for a telling example lead you not just to his conclusion but to your own enhanced ability to apply his conclusion in other areas.  


Those of us trained in the academy learn to write for a specialized audience.  My last post was my Chronicle of Higher Education piece on "The Art of Fudging."  Lots of people fudge in lots of circumstances but academics especially have a tendency to allow the forms and precedents of their field carry them through the deluge of argument.  It allows us to sometimes avoid exactly the place where we should be diving in, digging about in the muck beneath the surface to see what lies there.   Why I like writing sometimes for academics and sometimes for trade audiences, is that the methods are almost polar opposites, and I learn things from each method.   What I learn from writing for a trade audience is not only the power of persuasion, but the power of pedagogy:  how to write in a way that helps the reader learn how to learn.


I've blogged here before about the remarkable Daniel Levitin, the rock producer turned neuroscientist who has written the two bestsellers This Is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs.  He takes all the specialized conclusions from his own research and his own professional experience as a musician to explain both music and the brain.  I once described his first book as a music lover's guide to the brain.  He is splendid, and even has the generosity of intellect to explain to those outside his fields the controversies, debates, and unresolved sticking points within that field.  I hear the world differently having read Levitin.  


And Gladwell too.  Who knew that the majority of professional hockey players are born in the months of January, February, and March because most hockey players hail from Canada where January 1 is the age cut-off date so little tiny hockey kiddies, in the junior junior leagues, are being selected, nurtured, coached, rewarded, and given opportunity to practice their sport as much on the basis of size and maturity relative to other five year olds (because of that cut-off date) as on the basis of "inherent" talent.  That seemingly insignificant advantage is reinforced over and over and over for a lifetime and suddenly NHL players are Capricorns.  Same is true, he argues, for concert pianists, scholastic achievement winners, and many others.


I'll post again on Gladwell when I finish Outliers . . . but, for now, I shall end.  I have a good book waiting for me.  




--Special thanks to Flickr community member "thebusinessmakers" for this post.  By clicking on the image, you will see the whole photostream and full documentation. 


1 comment

Love what you say about Gladwell - he's a fantastic writer and an original thinker. He said that first gut impressions turn out to be correct more often than not - who knew?