Saturday, January 03, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008.

I loved The Tipping Point. I think it’s a brilliant book, and I learned a lot from it. I’m a little astonished I didn’t blog about it at the time! It was likely because I was in the middle of thesis-ing.

Outliers is told in a very similar way: anecdotes and carefully presented data make sense of truths that are hard to see through the clouds. Gladwell’s lucid prose and brilliant storytelling make it an enjoyable read. My only problem with the book is that there’s nothing to it. Oh, sure, Gladwell convincingly proves his thesis that the success of people are not due to sheer dint of hard work (the old self-made man story crap), but rather that that they’re products of environment, milieu, history, genetics, and deep cultural traditions. He convinced me that it's better to see these successes more as outliers from the statistical mass, than it is is to see them within the usual narratives.

But… so? Yes, it’s a myth that needed to be punctured, but it’s hardly a shock. Gladwell offers no tools to assess situations and histories to determine patterns to make one’s self a success, nor does he offer tools to create effective communities like that of Roseto, PA (a very healthy town that he uses to begin his book). To return to the language of the book's title, there's no attempt to ask major questions about how we can shift the mean toward significant measures of wellness. The trends he thinks about are visible in his rear-view mirror, but never through the windscreen.

Ultimately, I was left disappointed. Gladwell’s book is brilliant at giving the answers to the “what” questions, but never gets to the “so what” questions in any adequate ways.

1 comment:

Eric said...

That's disappointing to hear. I am a big fan of _Tipping_ as well and received _Outliers_ as a Christmas gift this year. I had/have high hopes for this book.

It's next on my 'to read' list, however, I get through books at a much slower pace than you do! It'll be February before I can comment on the content I imagine.

Your description of the book sounds like a major failing, however, I hope it's still a good case study if nothing else.