A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
According to Nietzsche, Kant writes what the common man believes in a language that the common man cannot understand. Malcolm Gladwell, it must be said, vigorously reaffirms what the common man believes in a language that the common man CAN understand, thus flattering the common man and “making him happy.” “To be made happy”: a Gladwellism for “to be satisfied with a consumer item, such as a book by Malcolm Gladwell.”
In Outliers (2008), Gladwell argues, in essence: “It is better to be mediocre than it is to be brilliant!” Perhaps that is too blunt of a truncation, but the book seems to welcome such simplicity.
We are introduced to Chris Langen, “the public face of genius in American life” , who nonetheless works in construction and “despairs of ever getting published in a scholarly journal” . Langen fails because he was raised in abject squalor, and his mother “missed a deadline for his financial aid” . By contrast, Robert Oppenheimer, a “success” for his complicity in the atomization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was “raised in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan” . Other actors on the community-theater proscenium include Marita, a twelve year old from an impoverished family who gives up her evenings, weekends, and friends to slave away in one of New York City’s most rigorous and competitive middle schools. She will succeed, Gladwell suggests, because she “works hard” and is given a “chance.” Indeed, Bill Gates was a “success” because he was given unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal at the age of thirteen. The Beatles were a “success” because they forced themselves to perform eight-hour concerts in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962. Along the way, the reader is pepper-sprayed with anecdotes about Korean aviation and Kentuckian aggression that have no apparent relevance to the thesis of the book, except to “demonstrate” that one’s “cultural legacy” sometimes has to be jettisoned in order for one to become “successful.”
Gladwell is arguing, in nuce, that success–euphemistic for “financial prosperity”–corresponds not to one’s intelligence, but rather to opportunity and social savoir-faire. The thesis isn’t so much false as it is banal. Of course, one must have social skills and opportunity to be “successful.” And yet I would contend, pace Gladwell, that even social skills and opportunity are not enough, by themselves, for an individual to succeed financially. Life never brooks such easy recipes (or follows such “predictable courses” , to use Gladwell’s language).
What, precisely, does Gladwell mean by “intelligence”? The author hypostatizes the Intelligence Quotient Test and thus subscribes to the false supposition that intelligence can be quantified and measured. If you receive 180 on the Intelligence Quotient Test, in other words, then you are a super-genius. Now, I did score [number redacted] on the I.Q. Test, but that, in itself, is no guarantor of my genius. Intelligence is an impalpable thing, and there is no necessary relationship whatsoever between one’s intelligence and the I.Q. examination, just as, following Gladwell, there is no necessary relationship between one’s I.Q. score and “success.”
Moreover, Gladwell ignores the temporal differences that separate his stories. Oppenheimer lived in an America that was less intimidated by, and envious of, intelligence than the America of the twenty-first century. I differ from Gladwell, and my counter-thesis is the following: Even if Langen possessed superior social skills, it is very likely that he still would have failed in life.
Why? Because the culture has become a home for Swiftian Lilliputians, ever-ready to manacle down any Gulliver who comes their way. Yes, Gladwell is correct in suggesting that geniuses almost always fail and the mediocre almost always triumph, but he completely misses the reasons. You cannot possibly succeed if you are a genius unless you camouflage, to a certain extent, your intelligence. We are living a culture that, instead of lionizing intelligence, disdains it. Those who possess a higher intellect than the multitude are looked upon with acrimony and mistrust. Such is the “leveling-off” or equalization of all distinction to which polymaths and geniuses have long since grown accustomed.
Similarly, there is the impulse in this book to anathematize genius, as if genius were some kind of cancerous polyp that should be excised. It is not difficult to detect a certain defensiveness in Gladwell’s anti-intellectualist posturing, not merely as if the myth that genius equals success needed to be debunked, but as if genius, in itself, were something intrinsically negative, threatening–damaging, even. Gladwell, non-genius, is content to attack genius in Outliers with the same vehemence with which he attacked critical thinking in Blink. And for exactly the same affective reason: Gladwell is as intimidated by genius as he is cowed by critical thought, for which he substitutes anecdotes lifted, quite uncritically, from single sources: books by John Ed Pierce, Richard E. Niebett and Dov Cohen, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin…
Gladwell’s most ardent admirers–non-brilliant readers who want reassurance that their non-brilliance is a formula for success–sigh plaintively and bleat. And the mediocre shall inherit the Earth.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the expansion of power comes from opportunity in the early sixteenth century. But he qualified: from opportunity and through cleverness (virtù in Italian).