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outliers

Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell, 2008) is subtitled The Story of Success, because Gladwell sets out to look at successful people, how they achieved that success, and what factors outside their control helped (or hindered) them on the way to success. He looks at professional hockey players and other athletes. He looks at Bill Gates. He looks at school children and lawyers. From my perspective his conclusion is that every successful person has a series of advantages and/or opportunities that don’t come to most of us; there is some unearned, usually structural advantage—often several of advantages—that successful people have that the rest of us don’t. Therefore, Outliers is a thoroughgoing critique of idea that meritocracy exits.

For example, in Canada, where many professional hockey players grow up, children’s hockey is organized by age group. If you will be 12 during the calendar year, whether in January or June or December, you will play in the 12 year-old league. If you turn 12 in December, compared to children born in the first few months of the year, you will be 10 or 12 months behind in development. So, when it comes time to select the best of the 12 year-old league, you’ll be at a significant disadvantage, because you’re likely to be less physically developed than most of your peers. The best of any particular age group tend to get more playing time, more coaching, and just play more hockey. Thus, when you get to the 13 year-old league, not only are you behind your peers physically, but also in terms of experiencing and training. This gap widens at every age group—is it any surprise that most of the Canadian national hockey team is born in the first three months of the year? According to Gladwell, the great majority are.

This is a great illustration of an arbitrary advantage, given to some and not to others, that leads to the difference between success and failure at something, in this case hockey. Gladwell describes similar structural and systemic advantages and disadvantages in all kinds of situations until, after telling a story about a “brilliant immigrant kid [who] overcomes poverty and the Depression, can’t get a job at the stuffy downtown law firms, makes it on his own through sheer hustle and ability,” he says: “I hope by now that you are skeptical of this kind of story . . . . [S]uccess doesn’t happen that way. Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.” Successful people are “a product of the world in which they grew up.

Gladwell goes further, explicitly critiquing the way our culture clings to “the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we chose to write as a society don’t matter at all,” thereby wasting huge a amount potential talent:

Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean society—in determining who makes and who doesn’t.

Gladwell implicates us all. “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success . . . with a society that provides opportunities for all. ”

Societal responsibility for helping our children succeed and for helping all people realize their potential is an important message. If Gladwell had left I there—pushing us to accept our responsibility and calling out to change the arbitrary nature of success in the current structures—the book would have been a useful and even profound call to improve education and opportunity for all.

Unfortunately, rather than change society to acknowledge the talent and skill of more of us, for Gladwell the solution seems to be to deny ones culture in the name of being successful by the standards of our current structures. Looking at Korean Air pilots and their historically disproportionately high crash rate, Gladwell literally argues that “to be a success at what they did, they had to shed some part of their own identity,” a deep respect for authority that he admits “runs throughout Korean culture.” Similarly, for Marita, a twelve year-old girl in a special school called KIPP (Knowledege is Power Program) in New York City. “[T]he cultural legacy she has been given does not match her circumstances . . . . Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekend and friends—all the elements of her old world—and replace them with KIPP.” That is, Marita needs to give up her culture because her culture isn’t giving her “what she needs.”

This attitude is classic cultural deficit reasoning (see the work of Tara Yosso and my entry on a lecture she gave in San Francisco). The idea, often put forward by well-meaning liberals, is that the poor (usually non-white) unfortunates, who don’t have the advantages that middle-class white kids have, can be saved by assimilating, by learning and adopting white middle-class culture. That this ignores the strengths, abilities, intelligences, and experiences the rest of the world brings to every situation doesn’t seem to register. This perspective looks at what people don’t have (i.e., they don’t have middle-class white culture), rather than what they do have (i.e., cultures and practices and abilities all their own). It also ignores the racism, sexism, classism, and other oppression that people outside dominant groups endure and the way that identity is fundamentally shaped by those forces.

A much better approach would recognize that everyone comes with strengths and weaknesses and would celebrate the incredible diversity of our cultures and abilities. It would foster talents we currently don’t even call talents. Creating true opportunity for more people to be successful in our culture means acknowledging the wealth that all people bring to school and work and politics and life.

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