“Tipping Point” Author Gladwell Explores Success

Why are Asians good at math? Why are there so many Jewish doctors and lawyers? How did Bill Gates become Bill Gates? And why did Avianca Flight 052 crash on Long Island on Jan. 25, 1990?

Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer who won acclaim with "The Tipping Point" and "Blink," ponders these questions in his new book, "Outliers: The Story of Success," which has 640,000 copies in print and has been in Amazon.com's top 10 since it came out Nov. 18.

An outlier is a person or thing that is way outside the statistical norm. Gladwell uses it to mean "men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary." He argues that success, even on the scale of Gates or Mozart or the Beatles, is not a matter of native genius but rather a mix of innate ability, luck and the willingness to buckle down and work.

"The three themes of the book are attitudes towards work, cultural legacies and luck," Gladwell said. "Success is some combination of those three."

Gladwell, an elfin presence with an aureole of curls, spoke in a cafe across from NBC's "Today" show studio after appearing there to promote the book.

"Outliers," published by Little, Brown and Co., lists some of the lucky breaks that made Gates, the Beatles and Internet pioneer Bill Joy successful. Gates and Joy had access to computers at the dawn of the computer age and logged countless hours programming while still in their teens. They founded Microsoft and Sun Microsystems not just because they were brilliant but because they were given rare opportunities -- and they capitalized on those opportunities through hard work.

Gates' elite private school in Seattle had a computer club in 1968, when most colleges didn't have computer clubs. One of the mothers at the school arranged for the computer club to test software in exchange for free programming time.

Gladwell said Gates, whom he interviewed, is well aware that he benefited from a happy confluence of circumstances.

"I suppose I was a little bit surprised by how sort of genuinely humble he seemed about what he's accomplished, or at least how aware he was of how lucky he'd been," Gladwell said. "In his kind of rational way he looked back over his life ... and he listed one by one these extraordinary things that allowed him to master computer programming before anyone else in his generation."

Gladwell believes that Americans place too much faith in innate ability and not enough in either luck or hard work.

We don't really believe the old saw about "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice practice."

"If we really believe that the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, why do we have gifted programs in public school?" he asked. "Once you understand that success in life is ... a function of attitudes towards work and cultural legacies, and not innate talent, then why on Earth would you sort kids out on the basis of their innate talent when they're 8 years old?"

Gladwell addresses the American education system directly in a chapter about why charter schools that shorten the summer vacation are a boon for poor children who fall behind when school is out because they forget what they've learned.

Wealthier children don't forget as much over the summer because they live in homes with books and they go to summer camps with an educational component.

"Middle- and upper-class kids are not-so-secretly working in their down time," Gladwell said. "And that just means that poor kids never catch up."

"Malcolm believes pretty strongly that if you change the circumstances under which people work and live, you can change the outcome," says longtime friend Bruce Headlam, media editor at The New York Times who grew up with Gladwell in the small town of Elmira in Ontario, Canada.

"He's always had it in for people who say, 'I succeeded because I'm exceptional."'

The most provocative section of "Outliers" addresses the role of cultural legacy.

Gladwell argues that people from certain Asian countries are good at math not through any genetic advantage but because of factors including a willingness to work that puts other cultures to shame.

In a chapter titled "Rice Paddies and Math Tests," he attributes that nose-to-the-grindstone attitude partly to centuries of rice farming, which is labor-intensive 12 months a year.

In contrast, he says, a peasant in 18th-century Europe worked hard during harvest and spring planting but was relatively idle the rest of the time.

Gladwell said he knows that many Asians resent being typecast as worker bees.

"I happen to think that instead of feeling oppressed by that stereotype, that it's a sign of something extraordinarily beautiful about Asian culture," he said. "It's something that we should be seeking to emulate."

Similarly, Gladwell looks at Jewish immigrants and finds that working in the garment trade was "boot camp" for raising doctors and lawyers.

"Jewish immigrants have been so extraordinarily successful in 20th-century America that there's obviously a huge industry in trying to think why," he said. "And for the longest time the notion that there was a special intellectual component to Jewish religious culture and that that conferred an advantage -- that was the leading explanation."

But Gladwell believes that the garment trade, which was highly entrepreneurial and required a minimal investment of a sewing machine or two, was a better pathway to success than the manual labor that other immigrants of 100 years ago performed.

"When you look at Jewish professionals, the doctors are not the sons of the rabbis," he said. "They're the sons of the tailors."

Another provocative chapter, "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," examines the role of culture in the crashes of Avianca 052 and Korean Air Flight 801 in 1997. In addition to weather and pilot fatigue, he blames those crashes on crew members whose cultural legacy made them too deferential to communicate clearly that the plane was about to crash.

Gladwell, who is 45 and lives in New York, examines his own heritage in the last chapter, "A Jamaican Story." His mother, Joyce, is descended from an Irish-born coffee planter and the slave woman he bought in the 1780s. Joyce Gladwell experienced racism from whites while at the same time enjoying higher status than darker-skinned Jamaicans, and she wrote about that troubled racial identity in a 1969 memoir, "Brown Face, Big Master."

"She has always been my role model as a writer," Gladwell said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us