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Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers Reviewed

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers Reviewed

10 Mins
June 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown and Company. 320 pp., $27.99

Begin with the title. An “outlier,” in statistics, is an observation so far outside the general range of one’s data as to indicate a possible source of distortion. Thus, if I may draw on Steve Sailer’s critique of Outliers, when you send out your research department to discover the average net worth of college dropouts, and they come back with a figure in the hundreds of millions, you do not roll out a program for selling yachts to that demographic group. You ask if they happened to interview someone named Bill Gates. In that data set, Gates is an outlier, and his economic condition doesn’t tell you much about the typical wealth of people lacking bachelor’s degrees.

But suppose you want to explain what brought about Gates’s outlier status—what accounts for his tremendous success, despite his being a dropout. Well, again, you have a problem. The trouble with outliers is that, by definition, there aren’t a lot of them, and thus explanations of their exceptional success tend to reflect cultural presuppositions rather than solid analysis. If you lived in the Renaissance, you would probably attribute success like Gates’s to divine favor; if you lived in the Romantic Era, to genius; if you lived in the Victorian Era, to “pluck and luck.” But if you lived in the twenty-first century, and happened to write for The New Yorker, you would probably attribute his success to some politically correct cause. Such as? Leslie Chang’s review of Outliers in Publisher’s Weekly says it all: “Gladwell tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account for success—and how historical legacies can hold others back despite ample individual gifts.”


Gladwell introduces his thesis with an account of the healthy citizens of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a town of about 1,500 residents, most of them descended from families who immigrated from Roseto Valfortore, Italy. In the middle of the twentieth century, it seems, the inhabitants of Roseto had extraordinarily low incidents of heart disease, and this well before cholesterol-lowering drugs had been invented. Was it because of their “Mediterranean” eating habits? No, they had switched to the American diet. Was it genes? No, immigrants from Roseto Valfortore living elsewhere in America were not exceptionally healthy. Could it have something to do with the region? Again, no, since neighboring small towns of immigrants showed average levels of unhealthiness.

Gladwell's use of the Roseto story is an introduction to his faults as an author.

The answer, according to Dr. Stewart Wolf, was the especially close-knit, supportive community that existed in Roseto, Pennsylvania.

malcolm gladwell outliers critical review

Gladwell’s conclusion: Roseto demonstrated that to understand why someone is healthy, doctors “had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are. In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.”

Now, I bow to no one in my admiration of close-knit, supportive communities, and perhaps Wolf’s theory is correct. But Gladwell’s use of the Roseto story is not only an introduction to his theory, it is an introduction to his faults as an author. His standard technique is to find some little-known specialist whose theories suit his prejudices and those of The New Yorker’s audience. That done, Gladwell becomes the theorist’s unquestioning advocate.

This is, in fact, the technique now used by most of our leading journalists: One saw it at work during the reign of Eliot Spitzer, when reporters simply adopted his theory of the business activities he was prosecuting. Obviously, this technique guarantees that the stories and books written by leading journalists are largely worthless. Yes, the stories win Pulitzer Prizes, as Gretchen Morgenson’s did. Yes, the books become best-sellers, as Gladwell’s have. But those awards and rewards come from stroking the prejudices of the intellectual elite and its hangers-on. The works themselves have no lasting merit as “the first rough draft of history,” because the authors do not question their pet theories. All over the Western world, intellectuals are screaming that we must “interrogate” the texts of our Western canon. But when they confront an idea they wish to believe, interrogation stops.

Take the present instance. What question about Roseto might Gladwell have asked his sources? Well, the answer is staring him in the face. He might have asked: “Is it possible that Roseto is an outlier, in the true statistical sense?” After all, consider how many small communities there were in America during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. That is easily determined by checking the U.S. Statistical Abstract: in 1930, there were about 3,000; in 1940, about 3,200; in 1950, about 3,400. Assume that the health of their citizens was largely determined by things like diet, personal life-style, genetics, and environment. What is the likelihood that, even so, one of those 3,000-plus communities would happen to have a health profile that was a statistical outlier? That would be a question worth asking. Perhaps sheer chance explains Roseto’s health statistics. But if you don’t like that conclusion, then study the records in those other 3,000 small communities and see if the health of their citizens is significantly correlated with the community characteristics you believe are responsible for the health of Roseto’s citizens.


Obviously, Gladwell is not interested in the statistical phenomenon of outliers. He is interested in what workaday journalists would call “stars and superstars.” But designating “stars and superstars” with the seemingly scientific term “outliers” is the sort of trick that makes Gladwell a, well, superstar among journalists—and probably an outlier where salary is concerned, too.

Because his introductory example, the healthy paesani of Roseto, is essentially irrelevant to his thesis about personal success, Gladwell must start anew in chapter one with his most powerful example. Back in the 1980s, a Canadian psychologist named Roger Barnesley pointed out that in any large group of elite Canadian hockey players, approximately 40 percent will be born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and only 10 percent between October and December. The explanation, he believes, is that boys begin playing very early and are grouped by age. At the age of nine or ten, the most successful players are placed into more elite groups and receive better coaching, face better opponents, and enjoy more playing time. But at the age of nine or ten, the “most successful” will tend to be those who are slightly bigger, for no other reason than that they are a few months older.

This drives Gladwell up the wall. His conclusion? “We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by ‘we’ I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.” His prescription: “We could easily take control of the machinery of achievement, in other words—not just in sport, but, as we will see, in other more consequential areas as well. But we don’t. And why? Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.”

Now, it is instructive to look at the chart of the Medicine Hat Tigers hockey team that Gladwell provides to make his case. Here are the dates of birth that he finds so infuriating:

Birth Months

Jan, Feb, Mar

Apr, May, Jun

Jul, Aug, Sep

Oct, Nov, Dec






However, Gladwell does not mention that, in addition to a prevalence of people born early in the year, boys who are taller and heavier than average predominate. For example, the average American boy, aged 16 to 20, is 5’8”. Here are the heights of the Medicine Hat Tigers:





















Likewise, the average weight of an American male, between the ages of 16 and 20, is 135–160 lbs. Here are the weights of the Medicine Hat Tigers:





















Doubtless, Gladwell thinks these latter two characteristics constitute a perfectly acceptable sort of discrimination, while being born earlier in the year does not. But why? The reason, I suppose, is that the latter two are largely genetic, while the first results from a “mere convention,” grouping people born in January with those born in December and declaring them to be the same age. But this is sheer Rousseaueanism on Gladwell’s part: Nature good; Convention bad. In truth, the attributes that we possess by virtue of our civilization’s traditions and customs are no less a part of our personal identity than are the attributes we possess by virtue of our genetic code. Thus, Gladwell fails to note the greatest discrimination of all among Medicine Hat Tigers: twenty-three of the twenty-five players were born in Canada. If grouping people by time is a mere convention, surely it is also a mere convention to group them by place. If we are going to throw out the calendar, surely we must also throw out the nation-state.


Above I cited the example of Bill Gates to illustrate the true concept of an “outlier” among college dropouts. Unsurprisingly, Gladwell also cites him, but as an “outlier” in his sense: as a superstar among fortune builders.

And how does Gladwell account for the fact that Gates became the world’s richest man? As you might expect, he alleges that it happened because of an unearned opportunity bestowed upon Gates. Readers of the biography Hard Drive will know that Bill Gates was sent by his well-to-do parents to a prep school in Seattle, Lakeside. The school had acquired some computer time on a Digital Equipment mini-computer owned by General Electric. Says Gladwell: “The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught up in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

Of course, the idea of “many Microsofts” is as absurd as the idea of “many Standard Oils.” Gates and Rockefeller became fabulously wealthy by achieving exclusive positions. Had the government provided a million young men with computer time in 1968, the result may have been many more computer companies but not “many Microsofts.” And who is to say that the government would have subsidized computer science rather than some other discipline? As I remember 1968, the youngsters themselves would likely have demanded courses in transcendental meditation.


Let me be fair to Gladwell. We cannot satirize him by saying that he calls for the society envisioned in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron”:

    The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Gladwell concedes that great success requires a minimum amount of innate “ability”—IQ, musical talent, height, weight, whatever. And he does not object to that. But he is insistent that everyone above the minimum is functionally equal. In that sense, Gladwell is the ultimate opponent of bell curves. He endorses the suggestion of Barry Schwartz that elite schools should put the names of everyone capable of “doing the work” on slips of paper and draw their entering classes from a hat. (As a counter to this notion of “minimum ability,” and to several other of Gladwell’s theories, I recommend chapter six in Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, which may be the best available explanation for outstanding achievement as such and in all fields.)

Did Bill Gates become the world's richest man because of an unearned opportunity bestowed upon him?

Let it be said, too, that Gladwell believes hard work is necessary for success. In fact, as one might expect, he has a gee-whiz theory to explain just how much hard work is necessary: a theory from psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who examined students at Berlin’s Academy of Music. Those who went on to become elite performers were found to have practiced for 10,000 hours; those who became merely good performers practiced for 8,000 hours; those who became music teachers practiced for 4,000 hours. Ericsson and his colleagues “couldn’t find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.”

Thus, the notion that hangs Outliers is “equal opportunity.” Like many a collectivist before him, Gladwell insinuates that the free society promised to be a pure meritocracy—rewarding “the fittest” and the hardest working with the greatest success—but that it has failed to keep its promise. The situation can be remedied, he believes, if government intervenes and equalizes opportunity. Were it to do that, then success would depend only on having the minimum level of ability required for a task or profession and willingness to work hard at it. Socially, the result would be a patterned system of fairness in which rewards (at least within a single line of endeavor) were proportionately distributed to the talented and energetic.

Notice that this obsession with equality of opportunity infects not only the egalitarian Left but also the neoconservative Right. For example, neoconservative opposition to affirmative action regulations is not merely an opposition to having government mandates imposed on private institutions, such as businesses and universities. It is a per se opposition to the employment of any standard but “objective merit,” mainly test scores. Thus, when neoconservatives came out against the racial quotas being used by college admission departments, they were quickly forced to concede that admissions departments should also abolish “legacy” quotas for the children of alumni. In Gladwell-like fashion, neo-conservatives agreed that having high SAT scores is a legitimate “natural” qualification, while having an alumni parent is an unjustifiable “conventional” one.


Libertarians have generally opposed all attempts to seek “patterned fairness” in the distribution of materials rewards. Thus, in The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich von Hayek wrote:

    Most people will object not to the bare fact of inequality but to the fact that the differences in reward do not correspond to any recognizable differences in the merit of those who receive them. The answer commonly given to this is that a free society on the whole achieves this kind of justice. This, however, is an indefensible contention… The proper answer is that in a free society it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit...

Responding for the neo-conservatives, Irving Kristol wrote:

    Now, it may be that this is the best possible defense that can be made of a free society. But if this is the case, one can fairly say that ‘capitalism’ is (or was) one thing, and a ‘free society’ another. For capitalism, during the first hundred years or so of its existence, did lay claim to being a just social order, in the meaning later given to that concept by Paul Elmer More: “Such a distribution of power and privilege, and of property as the symbol and instrument of these, as at once will satisfy the distinctions of reason among the superior and will not outrage the feelings of the inferior.”

My own outlook is somewhat different from Hayek’s or Kristol’s. I do believe that in a free society there is a general tendency for the competent and industrious to fare better than the incompetent and the idle. That, of course, is true not only of a free society. It is true of every good society. So I am merely asserting that a free society is one type of good society. But pace Paul Elmer More, the ownership of property is not the symbol of success in a capitalist society. The ability to command property may be such a symbol, but that is a subtler thing and often has little to do with the market. James D. Watson, at the height of his fame, may have been a much less wealthy man than certain rock stars and athletes. But he clearly outranked them in power and privilege.

Of course, Malcolm Gladwell does not doubt that a free society secures more rewards to the competent and industrious than to the incompetent and the lazy. What he laments is that the competent and industrious who have opportunities secure more rewards than the competent and industrious who do not have opportunities. This is anathema to him because he thinks it means that “rewards” tend not to be apportioned according to “merit.”

But Gladwell is mistaken. The rewards reaped by those blessed with opportunities do tend to be the rewards of merit in a free society. They are the rewards of the merit exercised by those who exploit their opportunities, combined with the merit of those who earned the wherewithal to provide the opportunities. The good education a son gets at his father’s school is the combined product of his own merit and his father’s merit.

Even so, however, the fate of a person in a free society will always depend a bit on chance. Pluck must have luck as well as opportunity. But what is wrong with that?

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