Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, does in fact succeed. Of course, to argue that requires a definition of success. What it does not do is establish scientifically anything new about the world. It does not even generate a new hypothesis. Those would be measures of success to the frontier of knowledge but that is not how you should judge this book.
Instead, my criteria of success, for all popular expositions of scientific material is (a) does it make you think about your own world and (b) does it touch a literature you had not previously explored in depth. To be sure, those aren’t strong criteria to leap over but very few popular books make that mark.
Gladwell makes a simple point: capabilities are a necessary but far from sufficient condition for success and outstanding accomplishment. You need things which, on a world scale, amount to a great deal of luck but that is because they themselves can be rare commodities. Gladwell makes the case for hard-work. Surprisingly, that made me think. These days we often find ourselves apologists for hard work as if a softer life is in fact desirable. Economists are easy prey to this value judgement as work enters as dis-utility in assumed preferences. And similarly we angst about over-working our children.
But Gladwell isn’t simplistic on this point. Hard work is not something you can just do. You need incentives — a clear link between effort and reward — but also intrinsic satisfaction. But get it right and you have the conditions to invest 10,000 hours of effort required for outstanding success without blinking. As I reflect upon my own life and career that resonates. For instance, you can look at the sheer quantity of stuff I write these days and it is out there (never mind the quality or typos). To me, it is easy. Writing is like a muscle. The more I did it, the easier it became. And blogging is just another outlet for that. So when people ask me how I found the time to pop out Parentonomics, the truth is that I didn’t. I wrote it in little bits and during that time wasn’t even thinking about the time spent. Indeed, for most of that time, I regarded my hard work as elsewhere, particularly, research papers and submissions to government inquiries — oh yes, and meetings and stuff. There the time was felt.
There is more than just hard work to the pot of luck that is important. Legacy and cultural background appears important too. And what is interesting about these are what you might need to do to escape those things. This was a literature that I did not know too much about. I know more now.
So I can highly recommend Outliers. It is the best of the Gladwell trilogy and well worth your time.