The Secrets of Malcolm Gladwell’s success

20 May 2009

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Say what you will about Malcolm Gladwell, but there’s no doubting the man’s impeccable timing — and his capacity for turning the bleeding obvious into gold.

In The Tipping Point, he wrote about the importance of social connections just as notions of social capital, viral marketing and online social networking were gaining mainstream attention.

In Blink, he told us to trust our intuitions, in an age of information overload. (Okay that wasn’t that amazing).

And now in Outliers: The Story of Success, when capitalism as we know it is on the skids and the whole idea of the rugged individualism that underpinned neo-liberalism — the dominant ideology of the last 30 years — has been revealed as the nonsense it always was, Gladwell comes out with a book about how the self-made person is, in fact, a myth.

Success, it turns out, is a matter of when you were born, where you live, what resources were available to you when you were growing up and dogged persistence. While this might come as news to someone who mistook Ayn Rand’s books for an accurate reflection of human Being and human societies, the rest of us will be wondering what all the fuss is about.

That’s not to say that his books aren’t interesting. Outliers, for example, reports on some interesting research that draws on Black Box flight recordings to show how culture affects our willingness or unwillingness to question authority — sometimes with disastrous consequences. In some of the recordings, it seems that subordinate officers from cultures that are highly deferential to authority didn’t directly question or contradict their captain or air traffic controllers, even though they they are headed for disaster.

Gladwell also reports on some interesting research into how language affects people’s ability to remember and retain numbers which, in turn, affects their numerical and mathematical skills.

As polished as Gladwell is as a writer, though, you always get the feeling that you’re only getting half the story. In Gladwell’s universe, the social scientists always seem to have watertight answers for everything. Their experiments are effortlessly carried out and demonstrate beyond any doubt that ‘x’ is the case. Questions about how a study was conducted, critics or alternative explanations simply don’t exist. The world of social science is one big happy consensus.

Of course, anyone remotely connected with the social sciences knows that this is pure fantasy. The reality is that the process of doing research is always far messier than Gladwell presents it and that the debates about the answer and how they were arrived at are impassioned and, in some cases, go on for years.

But then again, who’d want to read about that?