Success Story


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A little background is in order. Last summer, I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink. Then I wrote a belated review for 3QuarksDaily. The book, like most everything Gladwell writes, is a fun and sometimes exciting read. But I decided that, in the end, there wasn’t much of an argument in it. A nasty feeling crept over me. I wondered whether we’d all been duped into thinking that Gladwell had been saying something interesting when it really boiled down to well-placed anecdotes and well-told stories. The nasty feeling transformed into an admittedly nasty review titled “Down, I Say, Down With Malcolm Gladwell!”

I asked the reader to allow me to prove that Blink is “a piece of shit.” I talked about “sliminess” and “outright incoherence.” I called him a “huckster” (I’ve always liked that word) and then confessed that I hated his looks, “his hair scuffed up just so,” “his cute little suits.” And just for fun, I concluded the diatribe with the thought that the only thing that may salvage Gladwell as a human being is that he’s a “bad fraud.” Done.

A couple of days later, I got an e-mail from Mr. Gladwell. He responded to my argument seriously and honestly and wondered, in good humor, whether I really needed to go after his hair and suits. I am a suck-up to power anyway but this disarmed me. Directly upon the heels of our civil and pleasant e-mail exchange, Gawker picked up my review as part of what they called the “Malcolm Gladwell backlash.” This was really too much. I have signed the notional contract that every pretentious intellectual has: We must at all times thumb our noses at Gawker. I began to feel bad about the tone of the review even in its humor. Rapidly, I capitulated. I wrote an apology to Malcolm, though, in an act of astounding bravery, I held to my basic philosophical position as regards Blink. I was, inevitably, denounced by most everyone I know for managing both to be a jerk and an ass-kisser all in one short week. Such is the plight of courageous men. History will absolve me.

But I promised one thing to my faithful readers and perhaps more importantly, to literary culture itself. I promised to review his next book, with a freshened eye. Well, the world of belles-lettres can release its collective breath. I have read the book. I am prepared to speak.

With Outliers, we can now say definitive things about Malcolm Gladwell and his intellectual project. First of all, he is obsessed with success, how it happens, what it is about, whether it behaves according to specific rules. This is well and good. Success is interesting. The only thing that can compete with it for our hearts is abject failure. Gladwell calls Outliers “The Story of Success.”

Once Gladwell gets hold of his subject matter he proceeds in a now well-established manner. I see it as a triumvirate, three levels of Gladwellness. The First Level of Gladwell is all about challenging received opinion. This is Gladwell “The Debunker.” Gladwell’s basic attitude at Level One always sounds something like this:

Let’s now turn to the history of Bill Gates…Brilliant young math whiz discovers computer programming. Drops out of Harvard. Starts a little computer company Microsoft with his friends. Through sheer brilliance and ambition and guts builds it into the giant of the software world. That’s the broad outline. Let’s dig a bit deeper.

When Gladwell says “let’s dig a bit deeper,” you know what is coming. The Debunker, Gladwell Level One, is circling his prey. He’s going to take a myth down. In this case, the myth is that success has mostly to do with individuals and what they accomplish through their own genius and fortitude. Gladwell writes:

In Outliers, I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing…It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.

Generally, in all three of his books, Gladwell Level One “The Debunker” gives three or four juicy examples and then moves to Level Two.

At Level Two, Malcolm Gladwell is a social reformer. At times, it seems he is directly channeling Matthew Arnold. Gladwell is not interested merely in setting the record straight. He actually wants to do something about it, he wants to change the world. In the case of Outliers, after debunking the myth of success, he proposes that the knowledge gained can be used pragmatically. He thinks people can be more successful more often. His is the reformer’s spirit at its most forthright and vulnerable. One of the final sentences of the book is, “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success — the fortunate birthdays and the happy accidents of history — with a society that provides opportunities for all.” That’s as close to “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” as you’re going to find in any book directed at mainstream America. Level Two “Mathew Arnold” Gladwell is meant to give us a sense of empowerment coming directly on the heels of the shock and dismay produced by Level One “Debunker” Gladwell.

Thus, we arrive at the Third Level of Malcolm Gladwell. It is here that Gladwell, like an intuitive Hegelian, tries to bridge the gap between Level One and Level Two, the description and the prescription. This is where “Debunker” and “Mathew Arnold” get married. At Level One (Debunker), Gladwell blew up the myths and told us how things really stand when it comes to success. At Level Two (Mathew Arnold), Gladwell told us that success is something we can genuinely understand and, therefore, something over which we can wield much greater control.

The problem is, we might not believe it. Why should Level One lead to Level Two? Just because we’ve debunked something doesn’t mean we have all the answers. The debunking might simply lead to knowing that we don’t know, a confession of ignorance.

That’s where Level Three Gladwell comes crucially into play. Level Three Gladwell is “The Platonist.” I call him The Platonist because third-level Gladwell is primarily a storyteller and a master of anecdote. Think of the Platonic myths at the end of The Republic and in the Phaedo. These are the places where Plato tries to bring his idealist metaphysics into contact with human understanding. This is where the reality and the dream are brought together. It is also where Plato’s dialogues get their noted readability, their literary quality. For Gladwell it is the same thing. He tells a great story. His fundamental talent, if I may so proclaim, is in ferreting out the exemplary individuals and situations that make his arguments human. The abstract argument that success is more about conditions than it is about individual talent is of debatable interest. The story of the smartest man in America, with an IQ above 200, who cannot succeed in the world because of the meanness and brutality of his upbringing is the very definition of interesting. The same is true of the story of a gritty Jewish attorney like Joe Flom who, shunned by the WASP-y establishment firms in the ’50s, became an expert at dealing with legal matters around corporate takeovers and, when such skills became absolutely essential in the ’70s, went on to dominate the legal profession. As Gladwell argues, it all started in the garment district of New York’s Lower East Side:

Imagine that we had met any one of these four [successful Jewish lawyers] fresh out of law school, sitting in the elegant waiting room at Mudge Rose next to a blue-eyed Nordic type from the “right” background. We’d all have bet on the Nordic type. And we would have been wrong, because the Katzes and the Rosens and the Liptons and the Wachtells and the Floms had something that the Nordic type did not. Their world — their culture and generation and family history — gave them the greatest opportunities.

It gets even better. Level Three “The Platonist” Gladwell can himself be divided into two levels: Sub-Level I, “Pretty Good Examples,” and Sub-Level II, “The Kicker.” In the case of Outliers, the Korean Air example is Sub-Level II “The Kicker.”

It goes like this. Korean airliners were once crashing at a disturbing rate. Otherwise talented pilots were making mistakes and the mistakes were leading to catastrophe. Gladwell analyzes Korean Air Flight 801 on August 5, 1997, in detail. There was no single disastrous mistake during that flight. Instead, a series of smaller mistakes snowballed until the plane ended up running head first into the side of a mountain. Subsequent analysis made it clear that the mistakes of the pilot and crew were largely communication errors. Further, there was a distinct cultural component to these errors. It turns out that Korean cultural traditions of respect and politeness prevented the pilots and the crew from making crucial decisions that could have prevented the crash. A new set of procedures was put in place and, today, Korean Airlines has an exemplary record in terms of air safety. Gladwell sums it up thusly:

That is an extraordinarily liberating example. When we understand what it really means to be a good pilot — when we understand how much culture and history and the world outside of the individual matter to professional success — then we don’t have to throw up our hands in despair at an airline where pilots crash planes into the sides of mountains. We have a way to make successes out of the unsuccessful.

Point taken. This is Level Three “The Platonist” Gladwell Sub-Level II “The Kicker” at his best. Plus it’s a damn good read. But that’s also the problem with Malcolm Gladwell at Level Three Sub-Level II. As a wise man who studied at the feet of Plato and later became his most incisive critic once said, one swallow does not make spring. Human beings have been trying to fix problems in themselves and the world around them for quite some time now. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. One example of one astounding victory can be, paradoxically, the exception that proves the rule. The rule being that we, human beings, are not all that good at self-reform. When you rely on that much storytelling razzle-dazzle to bring Level One and Level Two together, the perceptive critic is going to get suspicious. What have we really learned here?

Indeed, when you think about the Korean Air example a little longer, its usefulness becomes more ambiguous. The problem that Gladwell identifies — the relation between Level One and Level Two — lies in a single assumption about success being corrected with a deeper understanding. Basically, it is about debunking the myth of the successful individual and replacing it with the “truth” of successful conditions. But Korean society does not share that American assumption about success and the individual. In fact, the very reverse ended up being the essence of the problem for Korean pilots. The pilots weren’t getting forthright information from their crewmembers because, in general, Korean society puts a high premium on social cohesion, whatever the cost. The solution to the Korean Air problem was to correct pilot/crew relations in the direction of more individual initiative.

There is a deeper problem. The skill with which Gladwell, like Plato, sets up his examples and anecdotes serves to smooth things out in his overall argument. Things get so smooth, indeed, that the original intellectual conundrum gets brushed under the rug. Let’s be clear. Level One and Level Two have not, in the last three or four thousand years, come together in happy synthesis. Put another way, understanding does not lead immediately to action. Plato, actually, suggested that it did, openly equating knowledge with virtue. But we gave that up sometime around the third century B.C. and no one has ever made a compelling enough case to bring it back. In short, getting from Gladwell’s Level One to Level Two (from the problem of success to its solution) is a goddamn mess and it has stumped everyone from Aristotle to Mathew Arnold. It is one of our deepest problems, and the otherwise laudable example of Korean Air does not suddenly give us the key to unlocking human potential.

The most fascinating aspect of Outliers is, therefore, in what I would call “the road not taken.” Level One “The Debunker” Gladwell makes a compelling case and an important case. Gladwell is right that the Horatio Alger myth is complete bullshit. Americans lie to themselves about success every single day. One despairs.

Level Two “Mathew Arnold” Gladwell is someone who wants to chart the way forward, who touches us in his genuine belief that that we can do better. Christ Almighty, why would anyone want to disabuse him of this impulse? It is also fundamentally American, in the good way.

Level Three “The Platonist” Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller with a nose for what knows. It is pleasurable reading, in the best sense. But the whole package, putting all three levels together, leads to something less than satisfying. That’s because “the road not taken” is a more troubling but more honest accounting of things. It is a situation in which Level One and Level Two stare longingly across a potentially unbridgeable abyss, in which Level Three gives us fragments of hope that frustrate as much as they inspire. We have little capacity to apply the lessons in any systematic or general way. It leaves us longing and impotent, as we have been, alas, since the beginning times and as we threaten to remain as we don and doff, all too briefly, this mortal coil. • 10 December 2008