Monday, July 25, 2011

OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell: Nature vs. Nurture Revisited

It’s rare to find a read so enthralling you simply can’t put it down, but I absolutely could not get enough of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and I have a stout, but cheery, fellow at the gym to thank for it. Spinning away on the stationary bike next to me, he kindly recommended the book when he spotted me perusing SuperFreakonomics (sequel to the freakishly clever and lay-person friendly behavioral economics piece by Levitt and Dubner). “If you like that, you’ll love this,” was basically my cycling companion’s literary pitch. A captive audience of one (did I mentioned the bikes were stationary?), I listened politely and all but forgot about the book until I came across the title in my local library, and I’m so glad I did. Simply stated, Outliers is a book that changed my outlook, and I would venture to say, if you read it, it will change yours as well.

Outliers answers questions we might never think to ask (or for that matter, seriously investigate) in ways most traditional disciplines would never think to explore. It goes beyond trite, single-minded research and opens up a new interdisciplinary paradigm that explains conventional stereotypes, honors common sense and defies conventional wisdom. And even though Gladwell’s book is essentially a dressed-up version of the quintessential nature vs. nurture question, the author offers a much more intriguing and complex interpretation. His perspective does for the time-old debate, what Coco Channel did for the basic black frock: takes it from boring to bewitching.

Gladwell’s premise is simple: Where you come from matters. How intelligent you are matters. When you were born and where you were born matters. What your parents did for a living matters. BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU THINK IT DOES. Gladwell doesn’t settle for the silver spoon explanation to success. Yes, in some cases, a wealthy, well-connected family meant additional opportunities (a.k.a. “luck”), or what psychologists refer to as life chances, but in other case studies, the exact opposite was true. Sometimes it was the underdog, the immigrant, the outcaste, that was dealt a cosmic advantage.

And what is that advantage, you might ask? Gladwell says it is a combination of factors, but three thematic beacons shine through the author’s work; they are opportunity, a minimum threshold, and meaningful work, and he uses these beacons to explain the following “mysteries.” First, however, let’s take a look at the three major themes. 


One advantage many of Gladwell’s subjects had in common was opportunity.  Not just any opportunity, but an early opportunity to work hard in an area that was highly valued by society (i.e. in high demand but with a low supply of expertise) at that particular moment in time.  (He sites the fact that Bill Gates began programming at age 13 and was one of the few people in the U.S. to have access to a computer in which he could program in real time.)  A byproduct of the opportunity to work hard at an early age (whether you are a computer geek, a rock star or a professional hockey player) is of course lots and lots of practice, which in turn results in more opportunities, which leads to more practice and even greater expertise.  According to Gladwell and others, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something.  In most cases, racking up those hours early (just before just the right time in social history) results in compounding gains and monumental success (see also Bill Gates).


This is where brains come in.  Yes, it is important to be intelligent, but you don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed.  Gladwell explores what he calls “The Threshold Theory,” in which he proffers a person need not be the smartest to succeed, they just have to be “smart enough.”  According to research Gladwell sites in the book, once someone has reached an IQ of about 120, additional IQ points don’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.  Gladwell says you are just as likely to win a Nobel Prize with an I.Q. of 130 (ah, yes, there’s still hope) than with an I.Q. of 180.

And it’s not just book-smarts that matter.  Social intelligence, charm, wit and other “nurtured” behaviors matter too.  Take for instance, Christopher Langan, the smartest man in America and also the “control” in Gladwell’s social experiment.  With an I.Q. higher than Einstein’s, he is an outlier by nature, but without a single published work, a Ph.D., or even a college education, Langan is a sad casualty of neglected nurture.


Finally, Gladwell explores a less quantifiable factor:  motivation.  All of Gladwell’s subjects were influenced and/or motivated by meaningful work.  (For example, in many cases it was the meaningful work of Jewish immigrant parents and grandparents in the textile industry in New York that, a couple generations later, led to a boom of Jewish doctors and lawyers in the same region.)  The author describes “meaningful work” as having three components:  autonomy, complexity, and a correlation between effort and reward. 

And there you have it.  In Outliers, Gladwell uses some very basic principles (those stated above) to explore the “mysteries” of success and failure.

The Roseto Mystery (why Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania never die from heart disease)

Why more major league hockey players are born in January than any other calendar month

How playing in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany transformed the Beatles from a high school rock band into an international sensation

Why men from southern Appalachia are more aggressive than northern men

Why a plane is less likely to crash when the least experienced pilot is flying

And why Asians really are better at math…

So am I going to reveal to you the answers and sociological and historical factors explaining these mysteries?  Absolutely not!  If you want to know, you’ll have to read the book (or allow me to regale you at the next dinner party).  Either way, Gladwell’s Outliers is a sensational breath of fresh air in American culture, where our “Wild West” legacy still lingers in the prevailing mindset that we are all bootstrapping, self-made men and women.  The brilliance in this book, however, is that the author, a native Canadian, delves deep at both the macro and micro level of cultural heritage and individual upbringing to develop his argument that indeed, nurture (usually resulting from uncanny opportunity) trumps nature every time.


  1. Lovely review. I have shared your review on my facebook. I shall read this book because of you. And hopefully someone else will read this book because of me.

  2. Do you think Gladwell sides with the Nature or Nurture side?