May 19, 2008

Updated: "Outliers"

From the new Amazon webpage of Malcolm Gladwell's November 2008 guaranteed bestseller, "Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don't:"
In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers"--the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.

Brilliant and entertaining, OUTLIERS is a landmark work that will simultaneously delight and illuminate.

Isn't Malcolm going to ruin the usefulness of the word "outliers"? We typically use the world outliers in statistics to refer to data points that aren't useful in finding a general pattern and therefore should be ignored. Malcolm's using it to mean the opposite -- the people we should most pay attention to in order to learn how the system works.

For example, say you were to make a study of how to succeed in golf by looking at the behavioral traits of the golfers who have won multiple major championships. By the traditional definition, John Daley would be an obvious outlier that you wouldn't learn much from studying -- he's fat, alcoholic, mentally unstable, a poor decision maker on and off the course. But he's double-jointed, so his incredible flexibility lets him wind up like a pretzel and crush the ball. Unless you're double-jointed too, he's a true outlier whom you should discard from your study.

In contrast, Tiger Woods is not an outlier for the purposes of learning to succeed. His achievements are stunning, but they flow directly from how he has optimized for golf success virtually every aspect of his game (and, indeed, life -- when he's home, guests say, he goes to bed at 8:30 pm and is working out by 5:30 am). I was a huge fan of Jack Nicklaus when he intimidated most other golfers in the 1970s with his focus and analytical mind, but Tiger does everything right that Jack did, and he also does things right where Jack got hung up by overthinking.

But, come November, everybody is going to start referring to Tiger, Roger Federer, Warren Buffett, Meryl Streep, and other people who most should be in the databases of anybody studying how to succeed in their fields as "Outliers!"

Similarly, anybody who wants to make a lot of money in print journalism should study Gladwell closely.

However, there is a sense in which Malcolm is a true outlier. He himself succeeds -- he may well be the highest grossing print journalist in America -- not because he understands the common mind, but because he has the common mind. His inability to think critically means that he's always sincerely gee-willikers enthusiastic about whatever snake oil he's infatuated with at the moment. His lack of skepticism makes him a natural for the self-help circuit.

But Malcolm's ability to be a complete sell-out while also being a complete innocent is an odd, John Daley-like combination. It's hard for normal people to consciously draw useful career lessons from Malcolm's success because the kind of lessons you'd come up with -- e.g., "New Yorker subscribers, editors, and fact-checkers will believe anything" -- undermines achieving the necessary Malcolmtastic mental state of sappy sincerity.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Gladwell is a entertaining writer but pretentious and an intellectual lightweight.

He is often ass-backward wrong as you've pointed out (racist car salesmen) and too brainwashed, stupid or both to step of whatever ledge he's climbed up on. Still, this post is missing any content and comes across as a personal attack.

You can do better. Gladwell is an easy target as you've demonstrated before.

Anonymous said...

Someone is bitter.

Ron Guhname said...

Gladwell is a PC peabrain with a pretty pen. Even the socialist Bertrand Russell saw clearly enough to admit that biological factors produce outliers. He wrote that everyone agrees about the cause of retardation; why can't we admit the source of genius?

I'm going to write a book that claims that Corky was so dumb because his parents didn't read to him enough. I think I can make millions.

Anonymous said...

why Asians are good at math

Oh, brother!

Anonymous said...

I'm already annoyed with this book and I haven't even picked it up.

What made the Beatles the greatest rock band? The serendipity of having two of the four best songwriters (along with Dylan and Brian Wilson) of their generation in the same band (with George Harrison as good as anyone in the next tier).

There's no pop psychology to this beyond the recognition that Lennon and McCartney were brilliant and driven. That strikes me as a pretty trivial observation.

Anonymous said...

Gladwell is the Casey Serin of journalism.

mnuez said...

Let's not forget the fact that statistics practically demand "outliers" (of any definition).

Probably the MAIN reason for the awesome success of the Awesomely Successful is... luck. Does anyone here actually believe that there aren't at least a hundred thousand Americans who couldn't be shrewder investors than Warren Buffet? Of course not. We all know that there are many many people whose brains are biologically better geared toward excellent investing than is Buffet's and that the reason why he's the wealthiest, the most famous and the one who will have his stool analyzed by people attempting to be like him... is because he was lucky enough to have won the lottery of having been in the right place at the right time.

Looking at a class of successful people in any particular field (including the field of accruing wealth) will offer some useful analytical results. Looking at any one particular super duper shmooper successful guy in order to try to emulate particularly him is as silly as trying to figure out how you can follow in the footsteps of the guy who last won the MegaMillions.


meep said...

mnuez's comment also points the way to where this sort of analysis fails as well -- you can't just look at the set of successful people (for whatever measure of success) and enumerate their qualities and say "This! This drinking 8 glasses of water every day is the cause of their success!" if you don't also look at the people who fail. The failures may also be drinking 8 glasses of water a day.

A lot of super-success is based on luck, but it's not like just anybody can capitalize on the various lucky circumstances that come their way. One needs to be prepared to take advantage of that luck.... and if that luck never comes, what then? Then you can be moderately successful, most likely. It depends on the field. Some careers/callings require far more luck than others.

Anonymous said...

Despite your obsession with him, Steve, I just can't get interested in this lightweight hack. I read his article on race and intelligence in the New Yorker and was shocked by its flimsiness, incoherence and low level of thought. Too bad he's popular, I guess, but you don't have to pay attention to everything that's popular.

Anonymous said...

Nine times out of ten, you will learn something useful if you read Gladwell and reverse his thesis.

His latest tome is a glancing support of Boazianism, or blank-slate-ism. The book says group differences don't matter; these people succeeded because of their idiosyncratic qualities, which you, the reader, can emulate! But as Steve and mnuez pointed out, nature, nuture, and luck are fundamental factors behind individual success and failure. Even something as simple as "good decision-making ability" is significantly influenced by these factors. In short, Gladwell gets it backward again.

Denying the importance of fundamental forces and instead offering us tips about how everyone can be an outlier (?) makes for a particularly intellectually corrupt version of the standard business book. Babbitt doesn’t know better; shouldn’t Gladwell?

It seems the PC elite are trying to stage a counterattack, what with boosting this book and hawking the Hawking “Africa Einstein” thing, not to mention the continued pilloying of James Watson. The elite have a lot at stake this year, with their boy Obama trying to mount the saddle.

Jose said...

Steve, you almost killed me! This almost caused a grand mal seizure from laughter-induced overpressure in brain capillaires:

However, there is a sense in which Malcolm is a true outlier. He himself succeeds -- he may well be the highest grossing print journalist in America -- not because he understands the common mind, but because he has the common mind. His inability to think critically means that he's always sincerely gee-willikers enthusiastic about whatever snake oil he's infatuated with at the moment. His lack of skepticism makes him a natural for the self-help circuit.

Nailed it! And, unfortunately, this book too will be a best-seller.


Anonymous said...

Gladwell is another "genius" of America's Weimar Era.

David Wilbur said...

Malcolm shold read Fooled by Randomness by Nicholas Taleb. He devotes a whole chapter on survivorship bias and why we really can't take away lessons from the super-successful.

Anonymous said...

Geez, I think most infuriating is his desire to re-define words. First he transposes puzzle and mystery, now it's outlier.

Either this is indicative of something fundamental with Gladwell, or he's tweaking/testing his editors.

Which reminds me of a This American Life radio show where someone (I forget who) comes clean that he and a co-worker would make up ridiculous phrases to see who could get it past the editors and into the news. What was most surprising was how those ridiculous phrases would get picked up by other hack-writers and become almost part of the zeitgeist. Anyone know which episode that was?

Anonymous said...

Gladwell is a bit like JK Rowling really, in that he is his own ideal reader.
Rowling is typical of the airy-fairy young women who form such a huge chunk of her readership.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, can't wait for Gladwell to exude that Chuck Yeager was the most outlying of the outliers.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh! I remember now!

The TAM episode I was thinking of... --pause-- that one where you get a glimpse of the corrupting power of having millions of fawning rubes believe every word you say, precisely as you say it... --pause-- the episode with the reporter coming clean on yanking everyone's chain... --pause--the reporter was none other than... --pause--

Malcom Gladwell.

Anonymous said...

Apparently he was yanking everyone's chain on his This American Life appearance...

Anonymous said...

For those that can watch video, a recent Gladwell talk.

It strikes me, Gladwell is the Jonah Goldberg of the left: thoroughly entertaining, and utterly callow. It is just what a tired, middle-aged middle-manager wants for newsiness. He doesn't make 'em think too hard and gently reinforce their biases in an ideologically-safe way.