Outliers: Gut reaction

outliers-malcolm-gladwellMy most recent in-car entertainment was Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s thesis is that, contrary to the myth of the “self-made” man, the success of “outliers” (extraordinarily successful people) has more to do with luck and the world in which they grew up than it has to do with innate intelligence and drive. Here is my gut reaction to the book:

What I liked:

Gladwell stresses the importance of community as a driving force behind success. I think this resonates with what I have come to understand as a very biblical concept. Humans are innately social individuals who were created to live within community. We are interdependent and our identity is bound to the communities in which we live. I agree with much of his critique of “rugged individualism.”

Second, Gladwell specifically discusses the importance of culture. He does a good job demonstrating how South Korean culture made Korean Air one of the least safe airlines in the world between 1970 and 1999 (it has since turned around), how the high honor/shame culture of Ireland and Scotland made Tennessee and Kentucky so dangerous during the period of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, and how the Chinese culture that arose from rice farming has helped Asian students perform well in math. These are all touchy subjects because Gladwell is making values judgments on cultures, something modern Americans are afraid to do. But he’s right in saying that each culture has strengths and weaknesses and that it’s important what they are. Again, from a pastoral/biblical perspective this makes sense. Each culture has constructive and destructive elements to it. We are unwise to think that the culture we currently live in is somehow the “best” or is above critique.

Third, Gladwell stresses the importance of hard work. One of the key components to his argument is the 10,000 hour rule. It states that you need to work at something for 10,000 hours before you become proficient at it. He applies this to hockey players, computer programmers, musicians, and lawyers. Gladwell’s stress is on someone’s opportunity to work those 10,000 hours. For instance, Bill Gates had the opportunity to develop skills as a computer programmer because he had unparalleled access to a computer lab which only very few people had access to. However, I think it is also worthwhile to note that not only is opportunity important, but so is willingness. More people than just Bill Gates had access to that lab. But he was the one who had the willingness to put in the time. Regardless, Gladwell’s emphasis on hard work parallel’s biblical admonitions to the same.

What frustrated me:

For the first couple of chapters Outliers drove me a little crazy. It really felt like Gladwell was “explaining away” the success of successful individuals. In other words, I felt as though he was detracting from their success by finding alternative explanations which existed outside of themselves, as though their success was somehow an inevitable sociological process. This kind of “explaining away” in sociology isn’t unusual, but it’s still frustrating. There were times when Gladwell would speak in false dichotomies (he was successful because of A, not B) when the more obvious explanation of the data should have led Gladwell to state (he was successful because of A and B). Throughout the book, Gladwell softened a bit on this.

I really enjoy social science books but there is always a danger in relying on this science to “explain away” instead of “explaining” human behavior. “Explaining away” leaves no room for human freedom. It makes something probable inevitable. It is deterministic. “Explaining” helps us see various causes and variables, but never removes human freedom.

My alternative explanation and takeaway:

A corollary of Malcom’s thesis is that, through luck, some people simply have opportunities that others don’t have. Really successful people are all successful because they had the right combination of intelligence, drive, hard work, opportunities, cultural background, and lucky breaks. By and large, I agree with this thesis, but with one caveat. As a pastor I would replace “luck” with “Providence.”

In other words, unique opportunities don’t come out of nowhere. They are not random. They are gifts from the God who reigns over history. We need those gifts to be successful, to be sure. No one can succeed “on their own.” We need those opportunities which God provides. What we need to do is to seize them. No one knows beforehand what opportunities God will place in our path. Our opportunities are not all identical. I didn’t get the same opportunities as Bill Gates. That’s OK. I don’t need to worry about that. I need to do is be faithful to the opportunities that God did give me.

Of course, we also need to redefine success. For Christians, “outlier success” isn’t extraordinary wealth or prestige. It’s extraordinary obedience to God. In this way Jim Elliot is as much of an outlier as anyone.

I read an article last week which talks about Gladwell’s re-discovering his Christian faith some time after writing Outliers. I wonder how it would have differed in that new light.

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